Nigel Barley was born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1947 and studied Modern Languages at Cambridge before completing a doctorate in Social Anthropology at Oxford. He taught at University College London and the Slade School of Art before joining The Department of Ethnography at the British Museum in 1988, where he remained for some twenty years. After several academic works, he wrote The Innocent Anthropologist in 1983. It contradicted so many cherished assumptions that it led to calls for his expulsion from the professional body of anthropologists. He remained, however, and now the book has been translated into some twenty-five languages and is often the first work embraced by students of anthropology in their studies. He left the museum in 2002 and is now a professional writer, living in London and Indonesia. His most recent work is Island of Demons, a fictionalised treatment of the life of the painter Walter Spies.

Eland Publishing have recently re-published two more of his books, A Plague of Caterpillars and Not a Hazardous Sport to go with The Innocent Anthropologist, which they republished back in 2011.

Paul Cheney: Have you been back out to Cameroon since the books were written?

Nigel Barley: I went back some years later when there was a prospect of making a film about the Dowayos. The film never came to anything but there had been enormous changes.

PC: Does the Dowayo society still exist, or has it been subsumed into wider Cameroon society?

NB: There was a refugee problem, MSF were running a big operation and warring factions from Chad had all been lumped together in one place and were killing each other. With Boko Haram now operating further north and anglophone fighters further south, I imagine those changes have continued. For anthropologists, the world is actually a much more dangerous place than it was when I was young. There are more guns and more political resentments about.

PC: You mentioned in the first book that you had to post the films back to the UK. Did you lose any when you did this?

NB: Extraordinarily, I never lost a single film – though many arrived without stamps – these having been reacquired by postal officials along the way. Since then, I have lost many myself, having left them in university slide projectors or publishers’ offices.

PC: Did you ever get to witness the ceremony that you went back out to Cameroon for?

NB: I never did get to see the actual circumcision though I saw it mimed as part of other ceremonies.

PC: Was the African bureaucracy one of the worst that you encountered?

NB: Cameroonian bureaucracy was absolutely the worst as it was conducted with extreme bad humour. In Indonesia, I once spent three weeks getting an official letter from a ministry, confirming that I didn’t need a letter from that ministry but even the civil servants thought that was funny and we laughed about it.

PC: Were there any stories that you had that didn’t make it into the book?

NB: When I went back the last time, our luggage was impounded at the airport. We finally discovered that this was because our reason for visit was described as ‘making an ethnographic film’. The officer in charge read it as ‘making a pornographic film’.

PC: Have you ever been on a horse since Indonesia?

NB: Never! And never will again. I have been on an elephant. Much better!

PC: Did you ever bring other people back to the UK to experience some of our life here, or were the Torajan the only tribe?

NB: The Torajans were the only ones I actually brought back but, naturally, I have met lots of people from distant parts who happened to be in London. I once found a family of Indonesians from one of the more remote islands lost on the Circle Line and brought them home and they stayed for two weeks.

PC: Are you still in contact with any people from the villages that you visited in the three books?

NB: Not with anyone from Africa but I am still in contact with Torajans. I added a postscript to Not a Hazardous Sport about that.

PC: In the modern interconnected world, do you think that anthropology still has things to discover?

NB: Anthropology is no longer about finding people who are still ‘uncontacted’ but of finding better ways of understanding what it means to be human. I’ve always been obsessed with the question of why anthropologists work on people they know nothing about as professional strangers rather than acting as their own ethnographic informants on the places they grew up in and know perfectly. One of the ways I tried to deal with that is in a book called, ‘Coronation Chicken’ trying to see my own childhood (50s and 60s Southern England) as a foreign country.

PC: Do you think that anthropology will look at the tribes that now exist in the sub-cultures of cities?

NB: It’s already doing that.

PC: Are there any societies that you wished you had been able to visit in an anthropological capacity?

NB: The real challenge would be ET. That would put all our assumptions, won over millennia of exploration, back in the melting pot.

PC: If you have an opportunity to travel without doing fieldwork, where do you like to go to?

NB: I always travelled seeking to find the place where I felt I truly belonged. For me, I discovered it in Indonesia. I love it and feel very much at home there. It’s beautiful, the food is great and the people are the nicest in the world.

PC: Which author(s) do you turn to for inspiration?

NB: Nowadays, I’m more a novelist than an anthropologist or a travel writer, so I like to travel in the imagination. For anthropology, it was Claude Levi-Strauss that brought me to the subject though I ended up approaching it from a very different angle than he did. I still feel we have much to learn from his vision of the world and I wrote a piece about that for his hundredth birthday. It appeared under the heading, ‘Levi-Strauss Lives’. Unfortunately, he had died the day before. The best novelistic travel writer is Anthony Burgess who spent years in Malaya and Brunei but with a very novelistic eye. His Malayan Trilogy and Earthly Powers confront the difficulties of intercultural understanding as well as any anthropology ever did.

PC: If you were to recommend three books, what would they be?

NB: Earthly Powers by Burgess, Totemism by Levi-Strauss and Primordial Characters by Rodney Needham.

PC: What book(s) are you currently reading?

NB: I’ve just finished Pagan Light by Jamie James about the place of Capri in the Western imagination and some of the extraordinary characters that it attracted.

PC: Do you have a favourite place to write?

NB: At home in London. I’ve always been baffled by authors who go off to the Outer Hebrides or Tierra del Fuego to write. I’ve tried that. You spend two thirds of the day keeping yourself fed and watered and, after writing two sides, you find you simply cannot write another word until you go and look something up at the British Library or go to one to of the major museums to see something crucial in the flesh. An exotic location is just a distraction. At home, you have everything you need already about you and you just have to have the courage to face the tyranny of the blank page without alibis.

PC: Do you have another book in the pipeline?

NB: I’ve just finished a book called The Ethnographic Seraglio about a 19th century English trader in the Indian Ocean who tried to establish himself in his own kingdom on a desert island with his 14 exotic ‘wives’. It ended badly, but I don’t need to tell you that.

Our thanks to Nigel and Paul for this excellent Q&A.

The Innocent Anthropologist by Nigel Barley
Eland Publishing 9781906011505 pbk Mar 2011

A Plague of Caterpillars by Nigel Barley
Eland Publishing 9781780601519 pbk Nov 2018

Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley
Eland Publishing 9781780601434 pbk Nov 2018