Daniel Macklin illustration - Tim Mackintosh-Smith on The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Slightly Foxed Issue 18

Confessions of a TV Tie-in

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I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind.

I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC. When the great Moroccan traveller passed through it in 1332 on his way to see the Tatar Khan of the Golden Horde, Feodosia was a Genoese trading colony, one of the junctions on a network of mercantile routes that linked Eurasia and Africa. A decade and a half later, the port was to play a crucial part in the unravelling of that network, and in the greatest catastrophe of Ibn Battutah’s age. Relations between the Genoese of Feodosia and their Tatar neighbours had collapsed. The Tatars were besieging the city, but making little impression on it. And then the attackers were themselves attacked, by an assailant that came, like them, from far to the east – the Black Death. As his stunned and depleted army prepared to leave, the Tatar khan ordered his catapulteers to lob the plague-ridden corpses of their comrades over the city wall. The bacillus rampaged through Feodosia. There were survivors; fearing another siege, they set sail for Italy. And with them went the Black Death, still hungry from its time in the thinly peopled steppe, to gorge itself on Europe.

The story may be semi-legendary. At the very least, it is a much boiled-down account of the way the disease spread westward. But, precisely because it is boiled down, it is perfect for television. I could tell it to the camera, perched forty feet up on the Genoese battlements. I could even have dummy corpses flying past me as I spoke . . . That last idea was quickly squashed, and not only because of our less-than-Palinesque budget. The funds would, however, cover my next brainwave. ‘So I get to the bit where the Tatars get the plague, and I say, “And it was all because of this little fellow . . . ” and pull the rat out of my pocket and talk about rat fleas and Pasteurella pestis and so on.’ Dan the director agreed, and off we went in search of a rat.

The pet shop only had those cissy white rats, which by no stretch of the imagination could have played a leading role in the worst pandemic in human history. Unless . . . hair-dye!

Some readers of Slightly Foxed may already be murmuring about History Lite. I apologize to them on three grounds. First, I myself am a product of the TV age. To be sure, the odd schoolmaster of the pre-TV era warned us of the evils of the box; one detested it on purely etymological grounds – it was a Graeco-Latin monster that should have been a telopticon, or bet

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I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind.

I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC. When the great Moroccan traveller passed through it in 1332 on his way to see the Tatar Khan of the Golden Horde, Feodosia was a Genoese trading colony, one of the junctions on a network of mercantile routes that linked Eurasia and Africa. A decade and a half later, the port was to play a crucial part in the unravelling of that network, and in the greatest catastrophe of Ibn Battutah’s age. Relations between the Genoese of Feodosia and their Tatar neighbours had collapsed. The Tatars were besieging the city, but making little impression on it. And then the attackers were themselves attacked, by an assailant that came, like them, from far to the east – the Black Death. As his stunned and depleted army prepared to leave, the Tatar khan ordered his catapulteers to lob the plague-ridden corpses of their comrades over the city wall. The bacillus rampaged through Feodosia. There were survivors; fearing another siege, they set sail for Italy. And with them went the Black Death, still hungry from its time in the thinly peopled steppe, to gorge itself on Europe.

The story may be semi-legendary. At the very least, it is a much boiled-down account of the way the disease spread westward. But, precisely because it is boiled down, it is perfect for television. I could tell it to the camera, perched forty feet up on the Genoese battlements. I could even have dummy corpses flying past me as I spoke . . . That last idea was quickly squashed, and not only because of our less-than-Palinesque budget. The funds would, however, cover my next brainwave. ‘So I get to the bit where the Tatars get the plague, and I say, “And it was all because of this little fellow . . . ” and pull the rat out of my pocket and talk about rat fleas and Pasteurella pestis and so on.’ Dan the director agreed, and off we went in search of a rat.

The pet shop only had those cissy white rats, which by no stretch of the imagination could have played a leading role in the worst pandemic in human history. Unless . . . hair-dye!

Some readers of Slightly Foxed may already be murmuring about History Lite. I apologize to them on three grounds. First, I myself am a product of the TV age. To be sure, the odd schoolmaster of the pre-TV era warned us of the evils of the box; one detested it on purely etymological grounds – it was a Graeco-Latin monster that should have been a telopticon, or better still a proculvision (if he’d had his way, we’d be asking if there was anything worth seeing on the prockle tonight). But the likes of Andy Pandy, Dr Who and Kenneth Clark worked their peculiar magic on me, and on my generation. Second, I am a popularizer: I want as many people as possible to know about Ibn Battutah, the time he lived in and the world he travelled through – a largely Islamic world still, and still full of the Wonders and Marvels that he saw. Last, and most certainly not least, I am a professional writer. I live off my book sales, and television, they say, sells books. All the same, I confess that I had one or two qualms about the idea of cramming Ibn Battutah’s twenty-nine years of wandering – quite apart from my own two books on him and a decade and more of reading, travelling and writing – into three hours of telly.

The very idea of it smacked of camels and needles. Ibn Battutah, like many of his Moroccan contemporaries, originally set out on a precursor of the gap year that would combine study, sightseeing and pilgrimage. But in his case the gap grew to fill half a lifetime in which he flitted between sultanic courts, Muslim trading communities and the cells of sufi mystics. He sponged, charmed and smarmed his way to China and back by the loopiest of routes, living off the largesse of the Khan of the Golden Horde, the Byzantine Emperor, the Sultan of Delhi, the Mansa of Mali – and of a legion of lesser hosts, down to an Indian mendicant who gave him the last of his beans. He could whinge like the best of us about blisters and sub-standard cabins; but in the face of pirates, tyrants and shipwrecks he had the guts of an Odysseus and the optimism of a Candide. And he had two more qualities without which his travels would never have become his Travels: a wide-eyed gaze that took it all in, and an astonishing memory that took it back home. ‘He it was’, said a Damascene poet,

who hung the world, that turning wheel
Of diverse parts, upon the axis of a book.

Six and a half centuries after he finished dictating his description of it, that world made words is as fresh and vivid as it was to Ibn Battutah’s readers in Fez. And from my own first reading, I began to feel the itch of the travel bug that bit him. Since then, the itch has become an obsession, a need to know and record what’s left of Ibn Battutah’s world. It could all have been a wild goose chase of hemispheric proportions; and, yes, there have been flocks of failures. But then you stumble across something Ibn Battutah wrote about – the same piece of furniture in the same spot in the same mosque in Anatolia; a tall story he heard, still told, about a melon farmer in Madhya Pradesh; buffalo-milk puddings he ate in the Nile Delta – and all those centuries are just another turn of the wheel. It can be a strange sensation, to be writing the continuation of a book begun by a man born a generation before Chaucer.

The challenge of condensing all those miles and words – his and mine – didn’t deter a succession of production companies from getting tremendously excited about Ibn Battutah. But sober reflection on the ‘Whicker’s World’ list of destinations, from Tangier via the Maldives to Beijing and back to Timbuktu, damped their enthusiasm: the series would cost serious money. And then there was what one commissioning editor called ‘the name-recognition issue’; not a problem of course, he added, if we were considering Ibn Battutah’s near-contemporary, Signor Polo. I pointed out that we were talking about the Prince of Travellers, not a brand of peppermints or hatchbacks; but I had to concede that the Venetian’s name does trip off the Western tongue – and through the Western consciousness – more easily. (Even to Arab ears, ‘Ibn Battutah’ has a hint of strangeness: ‘Battut’ is, among even more recherché possibilities, the Arabic name for Donald Duck.) It was another major stumbling-block. But what could I do? Change the name to something more viewer-friendly? ‘Batty’ somehow didn’t have the right ring; Hollywood had already done ‘Tootsie’. A quartet of potential production companies came and went.

It was production company number five – Cheetah, an offshoot of Endemol UK – that finally overcame the barriers of name and budget and got a firm bite of BBC funds. Cheetah was brand-new; Endemol, however, was established, successful and celebrated/ notorious for dreaming up Big Brother, the very archetype of reality TV. For a while my mind boggled at the idea of fourteenth-century ‘reality’. Would I be made to cross the Sahara on foot with nothing to drink but the gastric juices of oryxes, or to imitate my hero’s more uxorious adventures – ten wives, and concubines on top of them? Or would I be confined, on camera, in the Rat Pit of Dawlatabad – that infamous Indian oubliette whose rodent inmates, Ibn Battutah said, would gnaw the human ones to death (‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you out when they start to draw blood’)? My fears were unfounded. Endemol, it seemed, wanted to go higher-brow. They did it with a vengeance: in Maggie, we had probably the only producer on the planet who combines native Mandarin with excellent Swahili; Dan, the director, a Plato scholar, had turned down a
fellowship at All Souls in order to go into television.

Despite our combined credentials and all our best efforts – ‘No, no, we want real nomads,’ Maggie enunciated one day, for instance, down the phone line to Turkey, ‘not tourist nomads’ – an air of unreality hung over the venture, as it does over all things televisual. The idea that I’m setting off from Morocco to China with no more luggage than a little shoulder-bag containing Ibn Battutah’s Travels and a toothbrush, or that I’ve just arrived in Istanbul on an Ottoman sultan’s barge (diesel-powered: the ‘oarsmen’ managed two minutes for the camera then flopped back, pooped), or that I’m embarking on a 350-mile camel journey across the Western Desert of Egypt (one that ended behind the first sand dune) – all this is arrant fakery. Yet, if you see the finished product, you won’t even notice: in this age of surfaces, that of the small screen is the most specious, the most beguiling. And, in any case, who would want to watch the real reality of today’s travel – me lugging my suitcase to yet another check-in desk? Besides, what matters most in travel can’t be faked: it is neither how you get there, nor even what you see when you do – it is the people you meet. Not only were our nomads real; so too were our traders and travellers, sufis and sorcerers, pilgrims and pirs, butchers, imams, dervishes, hermits, our Ecumenical Patriarch, our Zamorin of Calicut – all descended, in spirit or in blood, from people Ibn Battutah met two-thirds of a millennium ago. His world is no less real now than it is in the pages of his book: I want to take it to the people of another world, even in a microcosmic version half-seen between the ironing and the sudoku.

If you detect a touch of missionary zeal, you are absolutely right. But, to be honest, there are other, baser pleasures that go with presenting TV documentaries. I like reverting to a childlike state of total dependency in which I can visit entire countries and never have to touch a piece of their currencies. I like staying, now and then, in hotels that are a cut above the travel writer’s fascinatingly downmarket doss-house. One, the White Swan in Guangzhou, proudly numbered Richard Nixon among its former guests and even published its own cookery book. (Confined to quarters by a typhoon, I copied out a couple of interesting recipes: ‘Emu’s Stomach Baked in Pot’, and one that sounds as if it might have been created for Tricky Dicky himself, ‘Crocodile Tail in Banana Cream’.) And there is something else that – I confess – is equally alluring. The possibility that maybe one in a hundred of the potential millions of television viewers might be inspired to buy a book of mine . . .

So is it all comfy hotels, creative highs and prospects of glittering sales figures, interspersed with the occasional whinge? Of course not. The occupational hazards are many and various. There are one-offs, like the hashish-spiked coffees that immobilized us all one night in Tangier, and there are nuisances inherent in filming such a bewildering number of locations. Gruelling itineraries are the most obvious: to fly Simferopol-Moscow-Beijing-Guangzhou in one go, mostly on Aeroflot, or to be vivacious on camera at midnight in Dubai when you had a pre-dawn breakfast in the Maldives and a sandwich for lunch in Sri Lanka – all this brings to mind the old Arabic proverb, al-safar saqar, travel is travail.

That constant need to perform can be mental hard labour – particularly as you’re doing it unscripted, and on a tight verbal rein. I’m naturally digressive; but the days of sprawling Bronowskian monologues are long over. Received wisdom has it that people only watch television these days; they do not listen any more. So words are kept to a minimum, and have to be delivered with a certain amount of what Dan calls ‘slices of Wiltshire ham’. But while I’m happy hamming to a human audience whose response I can judge and react to, doing it to the inert and glassy eye of a camera is quite a different matter. Do it half a dozen times in 120-degree desert heat, from the back of an ungovernable dromedary, and the Wiltshire ham begins to wilt. Practice, of course, helps. By the time we’d got to Khajuraho in central India, I could keep it tolerably fresh to the eighth take of a long Piece to Camera – the first seven having been ruined by, respectively, a fart, a momentary mental white-out, the inadvertent interpolation of a rare latinism, a cock-up of the penultimate word, dive-bombing hornets, hornet reinforcements, and a gormless chowkidar blocking the light.

As I write this, Episode 1 is about to be shown. Whether anyone asks me to present another series is in the laps of those demigods, the critics. But if anyone did, I might say yes. At first, writing ‘TV Presenter’ on disembarkation cards instead of ‘Author’ gave me a slight schizoid thrill – that of being possessed by someone who was not the usual I. And then, as the air-miles clocked up, I discovered that the two personas are not in fact so different. We are both going about collecting pictures, memories, people, places – ‘rushes’, of diary or videotape, to be cut and spliced with particular attention to pace. We both use a little judicious heightening of colour here and there (though not, animal-lovers will be pleased to hear, on that Crimean rat). And if our methods aren’t dissimilar, our aim is precisely the same: to tell stories, to share discoveries.

I realized this with my very first discovery, on our very first shoot. We were in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, looking at the earliest manuscript of Ibn Battutah’s Travels – the ‘mother’ of all the manuscripts, in fact, the fair copy in the hand of the author’s amanuensis and dated 1356. It is written on thick, polished paper with stag’sand goat’s-head watermarks, imported from Venice to Fez, and in ink of such durability and intense blackness that you can see where the scribe dipped his reed pen: dip . . . four, five, perhaps six words, then dip again . . . That brought me suddenly close to Ibn Battutah – the realization that we’ve both done the long slow slog of putting words on paper.

The finished series is rich in discoveries; but that moment of connection in the library isn’t one of them. To explore it properly calls for the reflective, analytical medium of the page, not the transparent, impressionistic screen. And it would be even harder to communicate on television the tactile pleasure of turning those thick, polished leaves. That is why books will always be with us, and the long slow slog of words on paper.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Tim Mackintosh-Smith 2008


About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith lives and writes in San’a, the capital of Yemen. His small-screen debut, over twenty years ago, was in an English-teaching soap-opera for Yemeni TV in which he played a character called Professor Hugh Midity. His documentary on Ibn Battutah, Travels with a Tangerine, was first broadcast by the BBC last year.

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