Birds of East Africa and books on the bus

I have a slightly odd fascination with what people are reading on the bus I take to work every day. Everything from fundamentalist religious tracts to Haruki Murakami and from the inevitable Harry Potter to the equally inescapable Dan Brown. The variety is amazing: I was amazed to see someone reading the decidedly abstruse Last and First Men by the largely forgotten science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon the other day. It’s an interplanetary saga first published in 1930. I bought the Penguin edition when it first came out in the 1960s and have never read it as it looks pretty impenetrable, but Sirius by the same author is a remarkable book about a passionate and indeed erotic love affair between a woman and a super-intelligent dog that her scientist father has bred. I had a short letter published in the Guardian about it last year…

But back to books on the bus. Today just as I was getting off the bus I saw a woman reading an Italian book entitled Guida agli uccelli dell’Africa orientale (Guide to the Birds of East Africa) which I thought was an odd book to be reading on the bus. For a start there aren’t terribly many Italian birdwatchers, serious birdwatchers are generally male and above all it’s such an unlikely book to be reading on a London bus. So I looked the book up on a well known search engine and it tells me A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is by Nicholas Drayson and that in Britain it’s published by Penguin, who aren’t big on ornithological field guides.

It turns out this isn’t a field guide at all; as I had slightly suspected, the title is a bit of a post-modern joke and it’s a novel about Nairobi birdwatchers who go on bird walks organised by the East Africa Ornithological Society. I used to go on similar bird walks in Nairobi myself when I lived there in the mid-1980s, so I’d be interested in reading this book some time. Penguin helpfully provide an extract from the book on their website and here’s how the extract begins:

Black Kite

‘Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’

Mr Malik smiled. How many times had he heard Rose Mbikwa say those words? Almost as many times as he had been on the Tuesday morning bird walk…

Back again to books on the bus. Apart from the titles I’m always fascinated by the languages people are reading. German and French are fairly commonplace, and so are Polish and Russian these days but I have sat next to a woman who was reading Lucky Jim in Czech and another woman who was reading what seemed to be a Mills and Boon-type romance in Tagalog. Once I spotted a man reading what seemed to be a modern history book in Amharic and another time the man next to me was reading a book (a photocopy, rather) in Tibetan. I plucked up the courage to say, “Gosh, that’s Tibetan you’re reading!” and I think he was rather surprised, but he was quite friendly and told me he was a Tibetan exile and had come here from India. But I had arrived at my stop, so I didn’t get the chance to ask about what he was reading.

But Amharic, Tibetan and Tagalog are nothing to what I consider my greatest coup – a woman who was reading a book in Basque. I wrote down the title and tracked it down on the internet, Kleopatra, a detektibe-istorio by Jon Arretxe. Basque on the 76 – or was it the 141? – bus. I find that amazingly cool though I doubt if many other people do…

And I am impressed that there are Wikipedia entries not just on Stapledon but on his individual books. But I can find nothing about Arretxe in English, or even in Spanish, on the net, not that I have looked terribly hard. Maybe he doesn’t translate well… But there is a short entry about him in Basque, he’s quite prolific, has written about 20 books…

My latest exotic bus book spot (try saying that after a couple of pints) was several weeks ago : Free Fall by William Golding in Arabic. A rather gaunt middle-aged man who looked like the epitome of an Arab intellectual was reading it. I noticed it had  William Golding on the cover in English and although I couldn’t see a title in English, it matched this book perfectly.

I’m afraid Golding’s reputation will have taken a bit of a knock with some rather lurid confessions published in the last day or so  that have been unearthed by his biographer.

He published around 20 books (including An Egyptian Journal, 1985, which is an account of a trip up the Nile by boat) and won the Nobel prize in 1983, but  he is an author who is more famous than read. As my daughter pointed out, Golding is one of those writers who is well known for only one book, Lord of the Flies (which I tried to re-read a couple of years ago, I didn’t get very far, I must admit). Who knows, maybe Free Fall is widely read in the Arab world…


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