A Long Walk Home by Judith Tebbutt: A story told with heroic self-control

The story of Judith Tebbutt and her husband David, who were captured in 2011 on the border between Kenya and Somalia, is all the fuller in book form, where the small, astonishing details filter through.

A Long Walk Home: One Woman’s Story of Kidnap, Hostage, Loss – and Survival
Judith Tebbutt
Faber & Faber, 204pp, £16.99
 
To read news reports of western visitors taken hostage in what have, until quite recently, been thought of as idyllic holiday destinations is to experience a chilly frisson and a feeling that it might be just as well to take a vacation somewhere (Cornwall, say) where kidnapping for ransom is still relatively uncommon.
 
But some stories linger in the mind for longer than the day’s headlines and, for me, Judith Tebbutt’s kidnap in late 2011 was one of those. Her husband, David, who was murdered during the violent incident on Kenya’s border with Somalia in the course of which Judith was taken hostage, was the friend of a friend who told me that Judith was partially deaf. I thought of her often during her cap tivity with pity and horror, wondering how she was surviving and how her only son, Ollie, then 25, was coping with the death of his father and the abduction of his mother.
 
In September 2011, Judith and David Tebbutt were on safari in the Masai Mara game reserve. Africa was a place of special signi - ficance to them. They met and fell in love in Zanzibar in 1976, when David and Judith’s first husband, Peter, were both employees of the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines. Judith had married young, to a chap from her home town of Ulverston whom she had met while working at an electrical components factory.
 
“Too late, we found out we really had nothing in common and no means of making the other happy.” For David, her feelings were quite different: Judith fell in love with him before she even learned his surname. After a courtship of a few months, they decided to spend their lives together and, by 2011, they had been blissfully married for 33 years.
 
The trip to Kenya was David’s idea. Judith would have preferred to go to Zanzibar but was persuaded by David to visit a remote beach resort, the Kiwayu Safari Village, where the former guests had included Mick Jagger and Tracey Emin. When they arrived at the place, Judith’s misgivings increased. It was utterly remote and the doors and windows of their thatched hut were covered only with blinds.
 
Reassured by David, she was deeply asleep when she was woken by a commotion. As David struggled with an assailant, two men holding rifles seized Judith and dragged her from the hut into a boat, which sped away from the land.
 
It was the beginning of 192 days of terror, loneliness, hunger, uncertainty and grief. In some ways, Judith was particularly unsuited for captivity in brutal conditions. She was 57 and suffered not just from deafness but from a congenital heart defect. But she was to discover that her reserves of resilience were at least equal to her fragility. Her training as a social worker specialising in mental health had given her valuable experience in dealing with violent or irrational individuals.
 
“There is nothing as bad in life as to have no hope, to believe you have been defeated, and to give in to that,” she writes. “I wasn’t prepared to countenance that fate for the women I worked with . . . And now that I found myself in confinement, I would not accept it for myself.”
 
The account of her captivity makes ex - quisitely painful reading: again and again the reader wonders how a physically fragile middle-aged woman could bear the humi - liations and hardships to which she was subjected. Her captors, Somali pirates who intended to ransom her, fed her as cheaply as possible, on small portions of potatoes and rice. She was confined to insect-infested cells, given no facilities to wash herself or her clothes, frequently had to share accommodation with her gun-toting captors and, some weeks into her captivity, learned from her son, who had been contacted by her kidnappers, that her beloved husband had been murdered by them.
 
But somehow she willed herself to survive. She weighed no more than five stone on her release, and her account of learning to live in freedom without either her husband or her job (which she was obliged to give up, as the publicity surrounding her case made her too conspicuous to continue her highly sensitive work) is deeply affecting.
 
Extreme as her experiences of violence and privation were, it is the small details that are the most plangent in this account, cowritten with Richard T Kelly: the freshly cooked samosas secretly passed to her by Amina, the pirates’ cook; the incongruously pretty sequins on the curtains of her prison and – most bitter of all – the loss of David’s wedding ring, stolen from his body before it was flown back to Britain.
 
Tebbutt describes her experiences in language that is almost formal, as though she were writing a case study. The businesslike tone can appear incongruous, but when she allows herself to express emotion, as in her final chapters on resuming what will never again be her “everyday” life, it becomes clear what heroic self-control has been required to tell her story.
 
“My life won’t be the same,” she writes, “but it is life itself, and its value is clear: it is all that wehave.”
 
Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror” (Vintage, £8.99)
Judith Tebbutt pictured at a house in Adado, central Somalia, before her release more than six months after she was abducted from an isolated Kenyan resort. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories