Dreaming of Leopards, Soaring with Eagles and Dancing with Spirits John Lockley

Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams



John Lockley is an extraordinary looking man. He has, surrounding his eyes, what appears to be a white mask. He calls it ‘white birth skin’. When she first saw him, his Dublin-born mother, exclaimed, ‘he looks like an abo!’ According to the family story ‘the white doctor frowned, my dad laughed, and the black Xhosa nurses ululated’.


Lockley’s mother was Catholic, and his Rhodesian father Protestant. Born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1971 he talks about growing up in the context of conflict. His homeland was burdened by apartheid whilst, what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, was in the midst of a civil war. Back on the island of Ireland in Europe the Troubles raged.Unknown.jpeg

However, city-bred Lockley dreamed, during his childhood, of ‘the African bushveldt, animals, and plants, about illness and healing’. Unbeknownst to him or his parents these dreams were preparing him for his calling, that of sangoma, or traditional African healer.

Once adult, Lockley became a ‘living pilgrim’, travelling ‘the world working with healers, mystics, psychics, Zen masters, and shamans’. He learnt Buddhism in South Korea, sangoma medicine in South Africa and ‘laughter and music – a living story that never ends’ in Ireland.

images-6.jpegLockley calls his practice ‘The Way of the Leopard’ and teaches his pupils to become ‘spiritual soldiers’ who, if their numbers become sufficient, should be able to lessen the amount of war in the world. It’s an admirable aim. Lockley uses the word ‘soldier’ for monks and young men who, like himself, eschew violence.


One of the striking sections in this book describes the period in which Lockley aged 18, having been drafted into the South African forces, worked as a medic in a rehabilitation hospital catering mainly for black special forces. He says these soldiers arrived ‘in tatters, their bodies and minds ravaged’. They came to the military hospital in Pretoria from the war in Angola.


African patients, whilst they were recovering, moisturised their bodies – from top to toe – with vitamin creams. The emollients, ordered by the racist but skilful white doctor, Colonel Gordon, were shunned by injured whites as ‘sissy’. But apparently and much to Gordon’s mystification the blacks got better more quickly. Lockley, although white, took to rubbing the creams on himself causing his father to accuse him of being a ‘woman’.

Lockley describes how one mortally injured 22-year-old soldier, named Emmanuel, died slowly over six weeks. As his nurse Lockley felt unable to help him but saw that the comatose soldier literally was gnashing his teeth. Lockley thought this was because Emmanuel was cogniscent deep inside and was frustrated and frightened by pain and helplessness. A sangoma would have been more use than the young orderly who had nothing at his fingertips other than conventional medicine.


Under apartheid it was only because of his work in the hospital that Lockley was able to spend intimate time with black Africans. There he befriended a Zulu sergeant, Ndlovu, who was himself an apprentice sangoma. Without that encounter it might well be that Lockley would never have found his vocation.


Needing relief from the trauma of the ward Lockley travelled to a Buddhist retreat in Tzaneen Forest, Northern Transvaal. His work there was to ‘just be’ and, having attained this state, Lockley was visited by his ‘calling dream’: an epic hallucination which sent him out on a ‘journey filled with magic and danger’.

It was also the beginning of his Thwasa, an illness he needed in order to prepare for his life as a sangoma. The first symptoms were boils on his legs – later diagnosed as tick-bite fever. The dreams and the sickness, which involved ‘high temperature, stomach cramps, back pain, weight loss, insomnia, night sweats, lowered immune system, nightmares, anxiety, and depression’ threatened to swamp Lockley.

Because Apartheid kept him separated from black Africans and their traditional culture he was unable to find a teacher and start his apprenticeship.   Instead Lockley pursued his university studies in psychology as well as those in Zen Buddhism. At all times he was ill with, for example, Hepatitis A and painful knees.


After a three month retreat in South Korea Lockley was invited to join an army of Buddhist monks but on reflection he realised that he must return to his home country, witness the end of apartheid, and find a mentor. By the end of 1994 the racist political system had been legally destroyed and as a white South African Lockley had used his vote to help elect Nelson Mandela as president.


Back at university Lockley was working with his professor on ways of integrating traditional African herbalism with Western approaches to AIDs. Losing faith in his lecturer’s adherence to his own ‘dominant culture’, Lockley understood that he must travel into the townships to fulfil his vocation.


Thandisizwe, a translator, ntroduced him to MaMngwevu, a senior sangoma.   Mama, as everyone called her, had dreamt that a white man would come and she would train him to be a great sangoma. During their first Divination meeting it became apparent that MaMngwevu knew all about Lockley’s life and sickness. She gave thanks that, because of the end of apartheid, she was at last able to see him as, because of his sickness, he had almost been lost to the world. She told him that now he would be able to recover and help others. She said his gift of healing came from his Irish mother’s side – from Mammy Kelly, his grandmother.

images-5.jpegMaMngwevu predicted that Lockley would become a great trance dancer and he knew her words were true: deep down he understood that he ‘would soar with eagles as the drums rolled’. In this way Lockley began an apprenticeship which lasted until he was 35.

During this period, in 1998, Lockley went to live in Ireland for seven years. He was mainly based in Galway where his task was to ‘marry his African and Irish spirits’. He writes about the ‘little people’ and compares them with the South African tikoloshe and West African gontomble. He seems to have spent much of his time busking in Galway City – using his African drum – and making friends with musicians, circus people and the ‘drunken and homeless’.


Lockley worked on his integration project to become an Afro-Celt healer. He pilgrimed to Croagh Patrick and, on the summit, burnt the South African magic herb, impepho. Eventually, overwhelmed by homesickness, Lockley went returned to South Africa.


It would be difficult not to wonder what Lockley’s parents thought of their son’s journey through life. They attended the seven day celebration of Lockley’s Umgoduso (final initiation) and his father, called to speak, stood six foot four, towering over ‘a sea of black faces’. He gave thanks, with ‘emotion and humility’, to all those who loved and supported his son.


images.jpegA moving incident occurs a few years later when Lockley, now a senior sangoma, is teaching in Donegal. He is asked by a mother to help her son, Conor, who was paralysed in a recent accident. Now, the former army medic has the skills to help the young man, and, in doing so, he remembers Emmanuel, the black soldier who died alone without a sangoma’s healing touch.

Works cited

Lockley, J. Leopard Warrior: A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams.Sounds True. 2018.

A version of this review was published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on 14th July 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.







The Cow Book by John Connell

The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm – John Connell


Prominent admirers of The Cow Book include Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Sara Baume so it is clear, just by reading the back cover, that there’s something literary about it.   The epigraphs, by Patrick Kavanagh and Henry David Thoreau, gentle the reader into a mood of anticipatory mellowness.

The first few pages, on the other hand, depict the writer, John Connell, struggling to deliver a calf on his own. Connell must use a jack and a mechanical wrench. Stomach-churningly reminiscent of the Irish horror film, Isolation, ‘the cow bellows low in a noise I don’t recognize, a noise of pain and strangeness’.

Still from the calving scene in Isolation. 2005. Billy O’Brien.

It is disturbing to discover that when a cow is calving her head is restrained in a galvanised headlock so that she cannot move. Meanwhile the farmer utilises the wrenching ropes. Connell explains that an older cow becomes so loose that two arms can be sunk up to the shoulder inside her birth passage – necessary, of course, to turn the calf for a safe birth.

After that the calf’s breathing is assisted with a vacuum pump and it is fed through a tube from a stomach bag. Interwoven with all this intervention is ‘the milk squirting into my jug, singing in the age-old sound of milk pouring onto itself’. This is lyrical writing: Connell says he learnt his skill with language from listening to his father’s storytelling. He and his da, incidentally, find it hard to resist fighting: two bulls in one field. All farmers know that is one bull too many.


The family have experienced upheaval as Connell himself became part of the diaspora after the Celtic Tiger boom and recession. Educated at DCU he travelled to Sydney and worked in film production making an award-winning documentary about Tamil refugees. Away for a decade in Australia and subsequently Canada he suffered mental illness and so returned to the sanctuary of home to farm and work out.


The past contains his relationships with alcohol, cigarettes and, the great modern sin, smart phones. Facebook still connects him with his girlfriend in Australia but Zuckerberg’s platform is guilty in Connell’s eyes of belittling a friend’s suicide by reducing his life and death to a few short sentences.

It is a truism that a simple life can be beneficial and Connell suggests that returning to an animal state of mere survival is healing. Nomads work with flocks and herds for mutual advantage. But these Irish animals rarely get that sort of peace. They are constantly being shaved, drenched, drugged and force-fed. Vinny the dog nearly lost his life because Connell chose to feed him sheep placentas thus encouraging him to attack a newly born lamb, hardly out of its caul and still smelling of the uterus, and try to eat it.


Whatever attempts Connell makes at mindfulness and reflection he finds himself in the middle of a vortex of opposing ideals and practices. Imperialism, capitalism and globalisation face up against the rural idyll of shepherds, haymaking and fashioning St Brigid crosses of rushes.

And yet… and yet… there is something charming in his cadences and melodies, in the speech patterns that he learnt near Ballinalee, Longford, which sweeten the incompatibilities and allow opposites to coexist.


Although he knows that the farm is a business venture and that, as his uncle puts it ‘there’s money being made there’, Connell is a man who wants to be kindly to the beasts. He takes care to explain to the calves, as they have their horns burnt off, that they will thank him for it in the end.

But the age-old struggle, that between father and son, still has to be resolved and that turns out to be a bloody business.

John Connell, centre, at the launch of The Cow Book with his parents, Margaret and Tom, brother, also Tom, fiancée, Vivian Huynh and Linda Keogh.  Image: Longford Leader

Works cited

Connell, J. The Cow Book: A Story of Life on a Irish Family Farm. 2018. Granta. Print.

Isolation. 2005. Directed by Billy O’Brien. Film Four and Lionsgate. Film.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor. 



Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Unmasked: A Memoir      Andrew Lloyd Webber


In Unmasked Andrew Lloyd Webber uses nearly 500 pages to get to the 1986 opening of his hit musical, The Phantom of the Opera. He protests that he hated the idea of autobiography but had been harried, by his loved ones, to tell his own story in his own way.  Unmasked is the first volume and covers 38 years: there will, one assumes, be at least one further volume to cover the next 38.

Lloyd Webber is apologetic, saying that he has never written about a more boring person than himself, and that he was determined to complete his autobiography in only one volume. Instead, he confesses, he has been garrulous.

The memoir is published to coincide with Lloyd Webber’s 70th birthday, an event which has been lavishly covered in the press, worldwide.  Among the plaudits it’s interesting to read Lloyd Webber’s personal analysis of how he built his amazingly successful career. Unmasked chronicles the period from Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat through Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Starlight Express and many others, culminating in The Phantom of the Opera.

Julian (left) and Andrew. Personal collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber

One important genesis was a miniature theatre, the Harrington Pavilion, which he and his younger brother, Julian, built. In it they staged all sorts of productions: many adapted from plays or books, such as The Weird Sisters, after Macbeth. These were nascent musicals and some of the songs composed at the time, such as ‘Chained and Bound’ and ‘Chanson d’Enfance’ featured in the early work, Earnest which was, of course, based on Oscar Wilde. Both resurfaced many years later in, respectively, Joseph and Aspects of Love.


Jean, their mother, was a successful piano teacher and co-founder of the elite school, Wetherby, which has welcomed, among others, Princes William and Harry as well as the commoner, Hugh Grant. Jean expected both Andrew and Julian to be childhood prodigies like their father, Billy, who had risen from the working class on scholarships, was now an academic, holding leading positions in both the Royal and the London Colleges of Music.

Billy with Perseus the cat

The brothers were to be eclipsed, however, by a new enthusiasm that their mother engendered. She became the patron and second ‘mother’ of John Lill, an outstanding concert pianist and fellow pupil of Julian in the junior section of the Royal College of Music. Andrew and Julian were dragged to John’s home in Leyton and set loose on the streets whilst their mother was inside having tea with John’s parents and discussing their son’s future career.

John Lill, Julian Lloyd Webber, Billy Lloyd Webber, Jean Lloyd Webber.

Outside the boys discovered the local football team, Leyton Orient. This was the beginning of their lifetime support of the ‘Cinderella’ London club. Years later Lloyd Webber received some sage advice from its then chairman, Bernie Delfont. ‘Never,’ he was told, ‘buy a football club’. And Lloyd Webber, who has bought a number of theatres, never did, but he is still a fan of the O’s. Julian has a daughter named Orienta.

Julian LLoyd Webber, Jiaxin Cheng and Jasmine Orienta Lloyd Webber

It’s thrilling to read about the London of the early 60s and to realise that it was easy for Jean to drive from Harrington Court in West London, stopping off at the Royal College of Music to pick up John and her boys in Prince Consort Road, before motoring along Marylebone and Euston Roads, branching left at Old Street Roundabout and heading North through Hackney to John’s house in Leyton. This 13 mile commute would take well over an hour nowadays but would have been accomplished in less than 20 minutes then, provided you did not get stuck behind a horse-drawn coal cart or rag-and-bone man.

As with many families there were conflicts and worrying times between childhood and maturity. The Lloyd Webber family were not wealthy and the boys needed to win scholarships if they were to attend elite academies. Andrew won history scholarships to Westminster School and Magdelen College, Oxford.  But the pull of musical theatre was so strong that he was unable to take full advantage of either opportunity.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice in New York 1970

In 1966 Lloyd Webber decided to give up his exhibition at Oxford and instead pursue a newly formed relationship with the call-taker at the London number FLAXMAN 1822. This was Timothy Miles Bindon Rice, of Gunter Grove, SW10, employed as a less than reliable articled clerk in a solicitors’ office. Neither young man was really settling nicely in the way that their parents had hoped.

Rice hoped to follow in the heels of his erstwhile neighbours in round-the-corner, Edith Grove. He hoped, like The Rolling Stones, to become a rock star. Lloyd Webber, on the other hand was more interested in operetta-like melodies.

They enjoyed working together, however, and soon another flat was rented in Harrington Court to house, increasingly frail Granny Molly, John Lill and the lyricist, Tim Rice.

Harrington Court, South Kensington, London, SW7

Lloyd Webber comments that this ménage à trois was seriously weird even for South Kensington. In the original flat along with Jean, was her younger son practising the cello, her husband composing on his electric organ and the elder son playing Puccini on the gramophone at full volume. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ states, Lloyd Webber, wryly.


With their sights firmly set on the West End, Rice and Lloyd Webber were not unduly thrilled when their pop cantata was slated for performance at Colet Court, the junior branch of St Paul’s School in London. Based on a story culled from The Wonder Book of Bible Stories, Joseph was in rehearsal for its 1968 world premier. Boys from the Hammersmith-based school would be singing along to music played by an amateur orchestra from Potters Bar – the other side of the M25.

The first of Lloyd Webber’s many ‘through-sung’ musicals, Joseph is entirely songs, unpunctuated with dialogue. According to Lloyd Webber this type of work has ‘a musical structure with musical key relationships, rhythms and use of time signatures’. They are, he says, part of his perfectionism in that they give him control of the piece with the ‘book’ becoming merely lyrics for each song.

The second performance of the show took place after the Sunday evening service at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster where Billy was Musical Director. During the first half of the programme Billy played a bit on the hall’s superb organ whilst Julian and John Lill each had a spot. Lloyd Webber criticises the Wagnerian length of the classical set but in the second half Joseph brought the house down.


It’s easy in hindsight to acknowledge the skill, talent and prescience that Lloyd Webber possesses. In the early years it was harder for him, and for his family and associates, to feel so confident. His father was his main support saying that his elder son was more driven than any of the students he had met during his career teaching at music schools.

Andrew Lloyd Webber 2018.  Image dailymail.com

There are traits about Lloyd Webber that people dislike. A certain arrogance and self-adulation that is cloying. An ability to forget that he has ever seen you before unless he is trying to utilise you for his own purposes. An irritating archaic slang in which phrases and acronyms are frequently repeated as in ‘ankling off PDQ’ meaning getting out of there as quickly as possible.

At the same time ‘the boy done good’ didn’t he? He has, more or less singlehandedly reinvigorated British musical theatre. His work is immensely popular throughout the world, earning his country much-needed dollars, and well-merited respect. Unmasked is fascinating and those who read it will be looking forward to the second volume. It will surely be full of even more gossip.

Works cited

Lloyd Webber, A. Unmasked. Harper Collins. 2018

A version of this review was first published on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 9th June 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.  


A Song for Bridget by Phyllis Whitsell

A mother’s love.


It’s not new for readers to be confronted by tales of young Irish women enslaved and raped by their drunken and misogynistic fathers or brothers. Neither is it a revelation to hear about a young woman fleeing across the Irish Sea to England. And there are many books where ‘Sunday mass is the ‘moral censor and the emotional comforter for all of us’. Phyllis Whitsell’s books are different because they are based on herself and her mother: a history painfully lived and then painstakingly researched both around Birmingham and in Tipperary.


Community nurse, Whitsell, knowing that she was adopted, decided, aged 23, to find her mother, Bridget Mary. When she found the woman known as Tipperary Mary she nursed and supported the ‘bag lady’ over the course of many years. Wearing her uniform, and seeming to be an outreach worker, Whitsell was able to give informal succour to her mother without revealing what their true relationship was. That’s quite an extraordinary story and is told in Whitsell’s memoirs, My Secret Mother and Finding Tipperary Mary.

Bridget Larkin in the nursing home in which she spent her final days.

In the epilogue to her latest book, A Song for Bridget, Whitsell summarises her years caring for her mother and explains that Bridget Mary never fully understood that her nurse was Phyllis, herself a mother to three children. Bridget was befuddled by alcohol and onsetting dementia so was unable to take her place in the family. But at least this meant that she could not compute the death of her own son, Billy, from a heroin overdose.

Whitsell is at pains to counsel the reader about prejudicial attitudes towards addicts, explaining that behind every case ‘there is emotional and psychological pain and trauma’. Her compassion is unstinting towards the birth mother who handed her over to an orphanage at nine months. There is no shadow of blame or resentment in her attitude and this might be because her adoptive mother Mary Bridget was able to fill the void left by the loss of Bridget Mary.

Whitsell with her three children in 1992.

Whitsell opens A Song for Bridget with a letter from herself, ‘Little Phyllis’, written, on February 22nd 2018, to her late mother. In it Whitsell explains to her ‘dear Mum’ how over nine years, as she ministered to cuts and bruises, she also listened to ‘snippets and anecdotes’ which were ‘the fragments of your story’.


Welding them together with, ghostwriter Cathryn Kemp, Whitsell presents an organised account of Bridget’s chaotic life. It is endearing that the co-authors adopt the first person for their account as if they are offering understanding even in the way they structure the narrative.

Phyllis Whitsell, aged 6, at her confirmation

It is hard to believe that the ‘roaring drunk’, pub-brawler was once a nine-year-old child racing down the streets of Templemore on her way back from school. Facing Bridget at home was a cold range and no smell of bubbling vegetable stew. Upstairs her mother had just given birth to a fifth child, Philomena. Soon after that Bridget was removed from school to look after her baby half-sister. She loved Philomena and many years later named her own daughter, Phyllis, after her.

Phyllis Whitsell as a young nurse

The story that Bridget Larkin told Phyllis Whitsell is one of cruelty and treachery. Every family member either willingly or unwillingly deserted the young woman. The Catholic Church and other institutions removed child after child: Kieran, Phyllis, Angela, Billy and Jimmie. All the babes were taken from Bridget’s protesting arms.   But one returned to her and offered the love and care that she needed. That was Phyllis Whitsell and this account is the final chapter chronicling the life of Tipperary Mary.

Works cited

Whitsell, P. with Cathryn Kemp.  A Song for Bridget.  2018. Mirror Books.

A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 5th May 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.



Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave Heart

Rose McGowan Jan 2018.            chichagotribune.com

Brave is a memoir written by a woman who says she will not bow down before men. She rejects entirely the patriarchal nature of the world in which she lives. Her refusal to comply has cost her dearly.

McGowan has been at the receiving end of abuse, not just from men but also from women, from the moment she was cogniscent, if not before. She was born in Tuscany on land occupied by an American religious cult. The practices in the commune included polygamy, paedophilia and subjugation of women. Some women colluded in the repression of others.


Once in the US, McGowan was in almost permanent transit between her estranged parents and other relations. As soon as she could, she ran away and ping-ponged from one male ‘protector’ to the next. She over-exercised and under-ate for years often being labelled, by acquaintances and strangers, ‘a freak’. Too thin, short hair. Men shouted obscenities at her.

McGowan is very clear about her bravery and her defiance. In the preface she expounds on the subject of women’s hair. Proudly presenting a shorn head on the cover of Brave, McGowan says she thinks that the ‘real Rose’ slept under her long hair whilst a ‘fake Rose’ used it to pay her way in a world ruled by the male gaze.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

She says that in Hollywood ‘I was told I had to have long hair, otherwise men doing the hiring wouldn’t want to fuck me, and if they didn’t want to fuck me, they wouldn’t hire me’. It is a no-holds-barred account.  McGowan is also clear about the complicity of certain women in Hollywood in the oppression of their sisters. They, like McGowan, have at some points in their lives prostituted themselves, as well as her, into a fake world. Some women were powerful agents or PR executives whilst others were costume designers and make-up artists. They encouraged her to fake herself by presenting pouting lips, burgeoning cleavage, pert buttocks and long hair. In this way she would, she says, become ‘fuck-fodder’.

Marilyn Manson and McGowan. Image: usmagazine.com
Robert Rodriguez and McGowan. Image” people.com

McGowan admits that her choice of partners has not been the wisest. One man, Brett Cantor, was kind but he was murdered soon after they met. Other men appeared to be supportive until they too slipped into unkind and cruel behaviour patterns.

It’s hard to read this book because it induces anger. Women are incarcerated by the law, zapped with electricity and drugged by medics in order to break their spirit and individuality. This sort of thing is explored in works of ‘autobiographical’ fiction such as My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

Image: hollywoodreporter.com

On the other hand some of the ‘greatest’ American novels by writers like Nabokov, Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike depict narcissistic misogynists who seem pretty much fixated on pornographical sex. Even some of their women characters seem to want to be nearly-raped because according to male protagonists that is what women want.

Whatever decisions McGowan has made it seems imperative that she should, without shouts of derision, have the freedom to say what she chooses, to write this book, to wear whatever she wants. As she says, ‘I didn’t do it to be sexy. I did it with power, to turn on the boys and the men of this world. I did it as a big middle finger’.

Let no one accuse her of being shrill, or neurotic, or mad.


Works cited

McGowan, R. Brave. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2018. Print.




A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner 17th March 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions – David Attenborough

Unknown.jpegIf there was ever an English treasure who is not Mary Berry, it is David Attenborough. He even saw off Boaty MacBoatface to get his name on a polar science vessel. We all love his dulcet tones as he strides, slightly unsteadily now, over tundra and desert. We chat excitedly around the water cooler about the best or the funniest moments. He seems not to have put a foot wrong in his 91 years.

But, have we been snoozing in the last five decades? Attenborough used to be an animal trapper. He used to ship creatures back to Regent’s Park in unsuitable travelling crates and with inadequate diets. He once had to dig for worms in a tulip bed at Amsterdam airport to feed a starving coatimundi kitten. Hours later he handed it over to London Zoo for lifelong incarceration. He smuggled a bag of scorpions, spiders and snakes into the passenger cabin of an international flight. These activities would not be acceptable in 2017 but in the 1950s they were seen as charming and exciting.

Filming and recording egrets.  Image: BBC.

Up to 1954 animal programmes on TV consisted of zookeepers bringing more or less vicious animals into brightly lit studios in which they would crouch in a paralysis of fear or try to injure their captors with teeth and claws. So Attenborough and his peers persuaded the BBC and London Zoo to collaborate in funding expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in order to capture and kidnap living creatures. This was the birth of Zoo Quest.

Attenborough chases a giant anteater.  Image: BBC.

In Guyana carnivores and omnivores were in worse peril than herbivores since the latter often consume only one specific plant, one that cannot easily be supplied in the UK. These species, mercifully, had to be filmed in situ and then released back into their natural habitat.


Thus the three-toed sloth, with a baby in her left armpit, escaped with nothing worse than the humiliation of being unwrapped from her branch and filmed using her evolutionarily adapted limbs, not for hanging, but instead for hauling herself clumsily along the ground, like a fish out of water. Hilarious footage.

Less fortunate was a manatee. This enormous sea mammal was slung into a water lorry before being immersed in a ‘canvas swimming bath on one of the decks of the ship’. She ended up all alone in a ‘crystal clear pool’ in a London aquarium far, far away from the muddy Guyanese river estuary whence she came.


But it would be unfair to criticise the youthful Attenborough. He was of his time. The three Zoo Quest books included in this volume have been out of print for many years and it is only now that they are republished, presumably in time for Christmas sales as well as to run alongside the Blue Planet II series.

It is honourable that Attenborough does not attempt to whitewash or rewrite what was done in the quest for knowledge and understanding. In spite of the terror and suffering undergone by some of his specimens it cannot be doubted that curators at London Zoo learnt more about conservation. And the television-viewing public began to appreciate how wildlife interacts with humans and habitat. It was the dawn of the Attenborough franchise.


Attenborough and his tiny team of peers were brave and indefatigable. They dealt with endless and frustrating bureaucracy as they sought permission and permits for their antics. Struggling with tiny budgets and skeleton numbers they endured extreme discomfort and sometimes danger. Their equipment was almost always inadequate and often broken. They lived on their wits.

Attenborough holds a 12′ python. Image: BBC.

In Indonesia, determined to capture a large python, Attenborough explained to a group of Javanese volunteers how to manage its head, tail and intervening coils. At the end of the lesson everyone melted into the forest except a boy and an old man. On arrival at the location Attenborough leapt into a tree, sawed off the branch around which the snake curled and gave the order for immediate capture. As snake and branch crashed to the ground his companions froze in horror leaving our hero to manage both ends of the 12ft snake and stuff them into a bag.


The context for these adventures is provided by summaries of the political, economic and geographical qualities of the regions visited.

Attenborough records and plays back local colour.  Image: BBC.

Film and sound tapes were used to record the routines and rituals of the indigenous peoples. Some villagers donated their own pets to Attenborough’s itinerant menagerie whilst others mounted expeditions to collect desirable specimens. One such received four cigarettes for a gourd full of common or garden millipedes. These were later released back into the forest.  But transactions in coloured glass beads or salt cakes resulted in an ever-growing pile of inhabited cages destined for base camp and onwards across the ocean.

On the gun-runner’s boat to Komodo. Image: BBC.

The search for the Komodo dragon was challenging. The beasts themselves were easily tempted by the smell of rotting goat. They were filmed and one was lured into a cage. But in the run-up Attenborough and two friends were becalmed at sea with a gunrunner. Later whilst the expeditionaries were away from camp this man tried to recruit Komodans to travel onwards with the party and relieve Attenborough et al of their worldly goods and the BBC of its equipment.

At sea with a baby orang-utan. Image: BBC.

The episode does not end happily. Although the Indonesian authorities allow the export of a baby bear, a young orang-utan, pythons, civets, birds and so on, the dragon itself is interned. His fate is left unexplained but it seems unlikely that he was returned to his natural home. Attenborough acknowledges that even had the large lizard reached a haven in London he would ‘never have appeared to anyone else as he did to us that day on Komodo when we turned round to see him a few feet away, majestic and magnificent in his own forest’. Exactly so.


The third and final destination is Paraguay. South America, like Australia, retains some surviving species from past geological ages because at one point they became detached from other continents. Although South America is currently reattached to the north it still retains the armadillos, anteaters, sloths and opossum of the age of the Edentates.

Attenborough displays an armadillo in the Zoo Quest studio.  Image: BBC.

Attenborough brought 14 armadillos back to England including four different species. But the Giant Armadillo eluded him in spite of herculean efforts. The first one he ever saw had reached London Zoo by way of a Birmingham rare animal dealer who had bought him in Guyana. According to his keeper and Attenborough the antediluvian creature, ‘ambling up and down his den’ is ‘nice’.

Attenborough with an armadillo in the wild.  Image: BBC.

The colour film negatives were never shown on TV as it was then a black and white medium but extracts, including the python hunt, have recently been shown on BBC4. Some clips are available on the network’s webpage interspersed with commentary by Sir David himself. It’s moving to watch the 26 year old cavorting about whilst the nonagenarian knight of the realm amusedly critiques his younger self.

Works cited


Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. Two Roads. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend supplement of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.

The Best Prime Minister we never had?


 The Nearly Man

First Confession: A sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Chris Patten, long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament, Home Rule Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, ex-governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of the University of Oxford is, perhaps, an enigma. Whenever there seems to be a pigeonhole in which to slot him a ‘but’ appears. He just is different from his friends and colleagues. He is a grandee who isn’t grand. He is a Conservative but not right wing. He is liberal but not a Liberal.

greenford-1950s.jpgGreat grandson of Patrick from County Roscommon, Patten was born in 1944 in Greenford, West London, where he and his elder sister were brought up in modest surroundings. It would appear that it was his brain that launched Patten on his route to success.

images-3.jpegHe won scholarships to school and university. There he was taught by excellent teachers and became a passionate historian. He admires cleverness and often comments on colleagues who are really clever, or, indeed, not as clever as they think they are.

In 1965 he chose to work for the Conservative Research Department turning down a job as a graduate trainee at the BBC. Everyone thought he was foolish. But, between graduating (Balliol College, Oxford) and this decision Patten had won the Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Fellowship and spent a year in the US ending up fund-raising for a Republican mayoralty campaign in New York. Politics had found its way into his blood and was not going to budge. In spite of this infestation Patten still looks to history rather than political philosophy to define his views.


For Patten, the concept of Conservatism comes from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s rejection of the French Revolution. He endorses Burke’s ‘opposition to utopianism and political blueprints’ and his objection to an ‘excessively rationalist approach to life’. This latter is important to Patten who was raised as a Catholic and is still practising. He feels that as a society people should respect their forebears and traditions in addition to looking forward to the future of their children. He sees these values as within Burke’s ideals of ‘patriotism, defence of the Crown, country and national interest’ as well as ‘defence of property and of order’.


Another of Patten’s heroes is the long-serving Conservative minister, Rab Butler, who ‘never quite became Prime Minister’. Patten thinks that Butler ‘should have got the job’. This is often mooted about Patten himself: ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’. He underlines the morality and charitableness of Butler, describing him as a ‘consummate man of public affairs’ and quoting Butler’s claim that he knew ‘how to govern the people of this country’. Patten would probably apply a similar description to himself.

Perhaps the most interesting phases of Patten’s career are the two spent in Belfast. The chapter detailing these is named Crazy Irish Knots. As usual he introduces his analysis of the political situation with a potted history culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which, he says, looked to the Northern Irish like ‘an Irish and Catholic stab in the back’. There was, after all, the First World War to be fought.

Patten felt that the North had ‘turned its Britishness into a sacred identity that most of the rest of Britain could barely recognise or comprehend’. He was uncomfortable with this and is disturbed now to see a rise of Nationalism in Great Britain and other parts of the world. He is scathing about most of the political behaviour on both sides of the border during the twentieth century, although he also acknowledges mainland culpability. The Northern Irish were not that keen on Patten either, when, with his British Irish Heritage and Catholicism, he took, in 1983, the post of Parliamentary Secretary.


It sounds like quite a fun job – apart from the guilt of raising the ‘Peace Wall’ by one and a half metres. He says he ‘built houses, opened health facilities, conserved buildings, ran a railway and spent the public’s money pretty well’. There were difficulties over the nomenclature of ‘Stroke City’. On Patten’s watch the city, remaining Londonderry, found itself inside Derry District Council. Stating ‘you could not make it up’ Patten adds wryly that he was rebranded too: ‘the Minister of Treachery’

images-3.jpegIn 1997 Patten returned to Belfast to become chair of the Independent Commission of Policing in Northern Ireland. This was to prove a more knotty problem. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was regarded as Protestant and Unionist. Patten was asked to develop a police force which ‘is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole’. Only 8% of the RUC were Catholic then but 20 years later 30% of the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are, more closely reflecting the proportions of the population. Other than balancing recruitment Patten felt that ethos and symbols were central. Badges were redesigned and union flags removed from police stations. Crucially this controversial work was conducted without security, as Patten and his fellow commissioners relied solely on the word of ‘paramilitary terrorists on both sides’, as they visited villages and towns up and down the country and listened to local views.

images-3.jpegDuring a long career Patten worked in many countries and was involved in many conflicts including, when he was a commissioner of the EU, the Balkan War. He worked with China when he was governor in Hong Kong. He worked with American diplomats. He is, he acknowledges, clever and well-informed, although reiterates that he has often met people who are his superior in both these assets. It is worth reading this book as its author sheds light, from a well-versed position, on many of the global political events of the second half of the twentieth, and the first 17 years of the current, century. He seems a thoughtful and reflective man, moderate and deeply suspicious of ideologies and bandwagons.

Using this experience, as well as his historical knowledge, Patten feels able to make strong generalising statements. Bracketing his work in Northern Ireland with his efforts in the Balkans he states ‘identity conflicts, like most others, require for their settlement a combination of force and politics’. He thinks that in ‘Northern Ireland there would never have been peace had not the terrorists in both communities come to understand that the British security effort was not going to run out of patience and energy. Second, in a big conflict, Europe had to work hand-in-hand with the United States. Europeans could not operate on their own’. Reading these words it is clear why Patten is unhappy with the current situation in global politics.


Patten abhors Brexit and despises Trump. Like many people he feels that everything on which a relatively peaceful world order was based is being undermined. He thinks that lies and mendacity have trumped good sense and collegiality. He despises the tool of referendum as oppositional to democracy, ‘substituting crude majoritarianism for discussion and compromise among those we elect to give us the benefit of their judgement’.

Closing the book with, at 73, a meditation of his life as a Catholic, family man, as well as a British European liberal international Tory, Patten has only one great regret: ‘the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils here, elsewhere in Europe and, alas, in America too’. He ends with the hope that Britain, Europe and America do not fragment what has been ‘one of the most peaceful, prosperous and increasingly tolerant periods in history’.

Works cited:

Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir.  Allen Lane.  2017.

Links to other blogs on Brexit:

Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver


A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section on 4th November 2017.  It is posted here by permission of the Editor.