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Major R. Raven-Hart


The Major is a bit worried. “I had hoped … to borrow a youngster as a companion,” he writes, but the crew on the river-steamer ARE Indians. The Major explains clearly that the purpose of this companion is “the chance to learn a little Burmese,” making Indians quite unsuitable. This is on the second page of “Canoe to Mandalay”, as the intrepid Major sets off to paddle all the world’s major rivers. Fortunately, as he makes clear on page 3, things worked out in the end, and “it prov[ed] far easier than I had expected to find English-speaking boys to accompany me.” The instrument of the Major’s relief turns out, surprisingly, to be the American Baptist Mission School in Myitkyina, who line up their boys so that Major Raven-Hart can take his pick. Ma Tu is fifteen, “stocky, not good-looking until he smiled,” which he did “explosively, when I patted his solid brown shoulder on choosing him, and I knew then that I was going to like him.”

And he does. The Major and Ma Tu set off paddling down the Irrawaddy, fifty miles in ten hours the first day (the Major is a bit stiff, but Ma Tu gives him a massage), an easier trip the second day with time for a swim on a sandbank (the Major is disappointed that Ma Tu won’t follow his example and strip off). They have adventure (a whirlpool draws them in but Ma Tu paddles the Major out of its deadly grasp), towering cliffs shut out the sun (and the Major can’t get a photo), and they meet Nature in the raw (Major Raven-Hart: “I say, are those tiger tracks?” Ma Tu: “Naw, that not tiger, that monkey. This tiger!”) At Bhamo the Major has their photograph taken in a studio: here he is opposite page 57, tweed jacket and sensible boots and a tie, pith helmet on his knee and huge beard covering half his face, looking remarkably like Lytton Strachey, and here beside him is Ma Tu, small and neat and very serious, in native dress (which the Major favours), a turban round his head and a great knife at his side, holding the Major’s hand.

At Katha Ma Tu has to catch the train back to Myitkina. Too bad, Major. But there’s another young companion, this one called Nyo. (There was also a “young friend” back in London, known as Sunshine, who seems to have been mighty pissed at having been left behind). Off we go again, paddling and swimming (Nyo proves willing to strip off for his daily dip – he looks sixteen, says the Major, but is actually 22, “the skin of his cheeks as soft as that of his arms … and as little pubic hair as a just-adolescent European or American boy”) their way down the river. At a village they stop for tea with a Mr Parry, who has a teenage servant-boy with some interesting tattoos: the Major and Mr Parry get the boy to strip naked so that they can take photographs for ethnological purposes (photos not included).

By the time we reach Pagan (Bagan in modern spelling) the Major’s relationship with his co-pilot appears to have advanced to a level never attained with Ma Tu: “I lay beside Nyo’s quietly sleeping, sturdy body and watched the dawn wind blow out the stars…” It’s a romantic moment and we’d like to learn more, but in the next sentence we’re back on the river again, a light breeze whistling through the ventilation-holes of the Major’s pith helmet. And there we’ll leave Major R (for Roland) Raven-Hart, halfway down the Irrawaddy and halfway through his book. He went on to write many more books and paddle many more rivers, penetrating far up the Nile, far into the Pacific, writing on history and architecture and the customs of far-off lands, always with his young companions, until at last he retired to Ceylon with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), a boon companion of Arthur C. Clarke, a must-meet attraction for visitors, “a fusion of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Summerlee and the traveller Sir Richard Burton.”

 

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

Major R. Raven-Hart, Canoe to Mandalay (Frederick Muller, 1939). This is the fourth of Raven-Hart’s many travel books, the previous titles being “Canoe Errant,” “Canoe Errant on the Nile,” and “Canoe Errant on the Mississippi.” All seem to be out of print. There seems to be no biography.

 
















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