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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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