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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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

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 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt