Tuesday 17 April 2007

"You cheat! You only walked 26,000 miles!"

Doctor Livingstone Henry Stanley
In one of my earliest memories I am looking out of the back window of the car, as my mum drives me to school. Off in the distance trees line the horizon, and inside me something stirrs.
I want to go off and live in them.
Even at that tiny age I had the urge to reject the comforts of security in exchange for living an adventurous life.
In many ways I have, but still I am captivated, inspired and enthralled by true adventurers.
Since then, I have also grown to love language, and dwell happy in the world of words. Would that it were possible to combine the two: to walk intrepid into unknown territory whilst also having just the right thing to say at the correct time.
Too much to hope for?
Unfortunately, apparently so.
Who wasn't somewhat enchanted by the legendary greeting uttered by Henry Stanley when he finally found Doctor Livingstone in the African jungle?
"Doctor Livingstone I presume?" said he, as understated and perfectly English as one might imagine possible.
Sadly, one might have imagined it all together.
According to Vanessa Thorpe of The Observer, our Stanley was a bit of a terror for the 'porky pies', as my London brethren would say.
Tim Jeal, having written a comprehensive biography of Livingstone, has just released a new biography, called 'Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer', in which he claims that Stanley was Britain's greatest land explorer.
Stanley did exceptional work as a cartographer in the Congo, while several of his expeditionary trips lie in historical limbo, shadowed by the classic encounter and memorable introduction that brought him fame.
Tim Jeal explains:
"Stanley told lies, that is the problem. And a liar can never subsequently tell the truth."
After being the first white man to clap his eyes upon the Victoria Falls, Livingstone went off to try and find the source of the River Nile, and disappeared for five years.
In 1871, the editor of the New York Herald sent Stanley to Africa to try and find Livingstone.
After the two finally met in Ujiji, in what is now western Tanzania, Livingstone recorded in his diary that he had met "a pale-looking white man in a faded blue cap."
The only other observation noted by Livingstone about the event was the way his servant Susi had cried "An Englishman coming! I see him!"
Riddled with insecurities about his background, Stanley rejected his Welsh roots and faked American parentage. Forever in awe of what he perceived as gentlemanly conduct, Stanley loved the story of how, when two English officers were crossing the wild and windswept Palestinian desert in opposite directions, they had simply touched their caps in respect as they passed each other.
Jeal believes that it was this anecdote in particular that inspired Stanley to embellish his greeting.
Stanley made a living out of his famous salutation, spending years touring the lecture circuit, and a transcript of such a lecture was recently sold at Sotheby's, offering the 'official revised' version of events. Stanley's script read:
"Doubtful of the temper he would receive me, I simply bowed and said 'Doctor Livingstone, I presume?'. He held out his hand in token of kindly welcome and in a few minutes we became warm friends.'
Biographer Jeal thinks not, instead believing these are the somewhat sad actions of a man seeking acceptance into what he perceived to be a cut and class above.
My hat goes off to both of them: Livingstone, lost for five years in the African jungle, back when nobody knew what that meant; Stanley heading off into the tropical abyss, and actually finding his man.
Menschen true, through and through, fibs or no fibs.
Anyway, this morphing of what was actually said into something more profound, poetic and historical is quite a common phenomenon.
Napoleon never complained "Not tonight, Josephine!" and Marie Antoinette never chirruped "Let them eat cake!"
Sherlock Holmes never quipped "Elementary, my dear Watson!"
Harold Macmillan never declared "You've never had it so good!" and Spock never told Captain Kirk "It's life Jim, but not as we know it!"
According to Elizabeth Knowles, an editor for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, many of these 'folk' quotations have become a lot more interesting than what was actually said.
"Again and again we see misquotations flourish because they catch the tone of a personality more than the original remark." explains Knowles.
Still today, at the heights of intrepid bravery and extremes of physical endeavour, discord still rules the roost in the world of adventure.
Journalist Steven Morris caught up with Englishman Jason Lewis, who has spent 13 years making his way around the globe under his own power. Travelling by neither engine nor sail, Lewis has chalked up over 30,000 miles of walking, cycling, and pedalo-ing across oceans.
Yet his brain is filled with neither the fear of failure, nor what manner of piratical peril lurks around each corner, nor the pain of decade-old blisters swarming on his feet.
What Lewis is pissed off about is how a Canadian guy called Colin Angus has claimed to have done the same thing in just two years.
Angus did travel 26,000 miles, far enough to circle the globe, but Lewis and others complain that by his own admission, Angus never crossed the equator, and cannot therefore claim to have performed a circumnavigation. According to the Guinness Book of Records, a circumnavigation of the globe requires the crossing of two antipodal points.
Like like er, if you walk in a circle around the top of a globe, you haven't gone as far as somebody who went right around the middle.
Angus doesn't really care. He has scored book and film deals, and has won an award from National Geographic.
"Colin (Angus) is full of hot air, but that doesn't make him a balloon." says Tim Harvey, who set off with Angus, but dropped out when his partner differed over circumnavigation claims.
Jason Lewis says it all.
"If you have spent 13 years of your life trying to do something the right way, and then someone comes along and says they've done it, but not done it the right way, then it is extremely irritating. Angus has cheapened the concept. He has not acted in a gentlemanly way."
That dirty cheatin' Angus only walked 26,000 miles!
Now, how far is Black Rock?


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