As a former academic and a natural history book reviewer, I was astonished to discover, on being threatened with a two-month exile to the primary jungles of Borneo, just how fast a man can read.
Powerful as your scholarly instincts may be, there is no matching the strength of that irrational desire to find a means of keeping your head upon your shoulders; of retaining your frontal appendage in its accustomed place; of barring 1,700 different species of parasitic worm from your bloodstream and Wagler’s pit viper from just about anywhere; of removing small, black, wild-boar ticks from your crotch with minimum discomfort (you do it with sellotape); of declining to wear a globulating necklace of leeches all day long; of sidestepping amoebic and bacillary dysentery, yellow and blackwater and dengue fever, malaria, cholera, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis, tuberculosis and the crocodile (thumbs in its eyes, if you have time, they say).
A rubber suit, with a pair of steel-waders, was the most obvious form of protection, I thought. But then the temperature runs to 120 degrees in the shade, and the humidity is 98 per cent. Hose and McDougall’s great two-volume masterpiece The Pagan Tribes of Borneo (published in 1912), Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago: the Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise (1869), Odoardo Beccari’s Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo (1904), Hose’s The Field-book of a Jungle-Wallah (1929) and Robert Shelford’s A Naturalist in Borneo (1916) offered no immediate solution. And then meek, dead, outwardly unimpressive, be-suited and bowler-hatted Uncle Eggy came to my rescue. Uncle Eggy was in the war against the Japanese in Borneo, and a member of the Special Operations Executive – the SOE. So armed with my newly remembered ancestor, I decided – before venturing into Borneo untutored – to seek help from the SOE’s intellectual descendants, the SAS.