The Fetish Room by Redmond O'Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier

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The Fetish Room by Redmond O'Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An amusing episodic memoir that captures the making of an English eccentric and naturalist, best known for his travel books - a man born of his time and of parents who did their unremitting best by him (sadly).
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Profile
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846684142

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An ongoing debate in our family has centred on the value of biographies, particularly of writers. I've always loved the touchstone of the places people lived and wrote, the banality of their lives, the detail, the insight, and the fact that it can tell you everything or nothing at all about the work. My Dad held that the work was what mattered; the rest is just social history. He said that almost disparagingly, which is odd, because if you presented it as social history rather than biography, he'd lap it up. I guess I just don't make the distinction.

However, the distinction does become relevant when you come to the biography of someone you've never heard of. Given my primary interests in this life (travel and books) there is absolutely no excuse for not having O'Hanlon on my bookshelves. One of Britain's finest travel writers and eccentrics, according to the blurb. How could I have possibly missed him? He even looks the part: with his whitening hair, sideburns and the mischievous glint in his eyes, he reminds me of no-one so much as Bilbo Baggins. He even has a similar approach to his adventures: it sort of seems like a good idea, he does lots of prep, spends the whole journey trying not to wish he hadn't started, and then writes up with a great deal of honesty and a touch of poetic licence.

Rudi Rotthier is the real 'writer' of this memoir. O'Hanlon just did the talking. (But boy can he talk!)

Rotthier is a Flemish journalist who had the good fortune to spend a couple of weeks with O'Hanlon, initially attempting formal interviews, but ultimately giving in to the temptation to just enjoy the company, allow the anecdotes to be spun and recorded as and when they come.

They come, it turns out, according to some kind of fixed formula. It needs a provocation to begin a tale, but once begun it is a recitation rather than a ramble. Perhaps this is the true skill of the expert raconteur. Perhaps Ustinov honed his tales much the same way. In O'Hanlon's case, it is not just a matter of preserving the myth that the retelling of events serves to create, it about creating order. He is a chaotic individual who lives in a state of permanent upheaval.

This manifests itself in the near-squalor of his living quarters (in his wife's absence) but more crucially lurks in the depths of a psyche damaged by parental attitudes and the rigours of public school, for which is was signally ill-equipped.

The fetish room of the title is a private den within the O'Hanlon household, in which the author keeps (for want of a better word) his fetishes. The word fetish simply means something that is made, but has come to mean an artefact or a natural object that is imbued with supernatural or spiritual power. A talisman, for good or ill. Such things should be kept secret. O'Hanlon keeps his secret to the extent that he rarely allows anyone into the room and then only when they are suitably plied with alcohol and only for a few moments, most of which will be spent in the dark.

Does he have anything so unspeakable in there? Or is this just part of the famous eccentricity? Or is it maybe the simple deployment of ritual to preserve the myth necessary to preserve the power of the fetish? Or perhaps the fetish room is to support the mythical status of the author? There can't be a definitive answer. Take what clues you will from the known fact that one of his totems is a jar containing the charred remains of the foot of a close friend who died by self-immolation

Don't be put off by the dark undercurrents however. The book is a joy to read. Rotthier is taken on a mini-road-trip exploring Oxford and the south-west haunts of O'Hanlon's youth. Schools, vicarages, Stonehenge, the Marlborough Downs. These are the places, and along the way we encounter the people, too, that made the man. Or unmade him. Or both.

They are the reasons he became interested in natural history, and how he came to be a traveller and a writer.

It isn't a biography as such. More an anecdotal memoir. It's written as Rotthier's own travel book – the conversations with his subject fully interlaced with the times and places and incidents provoking the conversation. That the conversation is at the heart of it and the conversation is dominated by O'Hanlon's reminiscences (which after all was always the point) and that they are quoted at length and (one assumes) verbatim, is what justifies him getting top billing above the title, even though it's Rotthier that pulled it all together.

Like all good interviewers, our Flemish guide knows well enough when to stand aside and let the subject speak. The subject speaks with passion on occasions, often with a dry and acerbic wit, directed against himself as often as against others. A love of language and of absurdity – in particular a love of our sometimes absurd use of language – appeals particularly to me. Melancholy is seldom buried deep, but it adds a sweet sadness rather than a bitter one.

The result is a delightful read, often funny, full of insight into the character of an individual and, yes, a solid piece of social history.

How much light it sheds on the O'Hanlon oeuvre, I couldn't say. Ask me in a year or two: I need to go seek out the back catalogue.

For more literary biography you could try The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller, or if it's naturalists you're interested in, then the big one has to be Darwin: A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Michael White.

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