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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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