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Quentin Keynes liked to describe himself as an explorer, by which he meant that he was driven throughout his life by a determination to visit remote and inaccessible places, in search of all things exotic, rarified, and obscure. He was also a safari-leader, because he loved nothing more than going each year to Africa, and introducing its natural wonders to the young. He was at the same time a travel-writer, film-maker, and lecturer, driven by a wish to capture all that he saw in words or on film, so that he could share his experiences with others. And he was a collector of books and manuscripts, choosing in this way to pursue his various interests and to express his respect for those whose accomplishments he admired the most.
Quentin was at his most adventurous as an explorer in the 1950s, when he was in his thirties. He crossed oceans by ship, and continents by truck. In 1950 he set off with one companion deep into the Kaokoveld, in South West Africa (Namibia), on a quest for the quagga, a kind of zebra long presumed to be extinct; and although the quagga eluded him, he reached what remained of the ship Dunedin Star, famously wrecked in 1942 off the Skeleton Coast. In 1952 he went to Mauritius, in search of the dodo, and visited Praslin Island, in the Seychelles, in order to admire the coco-de-mer palm tree. In 1954 he penetrated deep into Angola, to the land of the giant sable antelope, rarest and most majestic of the whole family of African antelopes; and by a stroke of good fortune he was able to film two of their number locked in horn to horn combat. In 1955 he was in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands, where he tried to catch a coelacanth. In 1958 he went up the Zambezi River, in the footsteps of David Livingstone, and by another stroke of good fortune discovered Livingstone's monogram carved inside the hollow trunk of a baobab tree. In the early 1960s he filmed the mountain gorillas in Uganda, and photographed a spotted zebra in south-west Tanzania. Several times he sailed back to England from Cape Town, and developed a special affection for the island of St Helena, in the south Atlantic.
Quentin passed the last forty years of his life moving on a fairly regular basis between three countries. In the winter and spring of each year, he lived in the USA (initially in New York, latterly in Connecticut), driving across the country from one lecturing engagement to another, and staying for short or longer periods with his wide and well-placed network of friends. At the beginning and end of the summer he would visit the UK, returning to his books in London, or moving between friends and family, showing films wherever he could. The best time of the year, however, was in July and August, when he would be in the depths of Africa, leading parties of between five and ten American (and sometimes English) boys on safari, living out of a couple of Land Rovers and sleeping rough on the ground. He led his last group of teenagers on safari to Africa in 2001, when he was in his eighty-first year.
It was a lifestyle that left Quentin free to pursue his own interests, without any of the obligations and responsibilities that impede the rest of mankind; and for over sixty years, from the early 1940s until a few months before his death in 2003, he was able to devote much of his time to his books and manuscripts. It started in 1941 with James Joyce, who seems to have appealed to his taste for the unconventional; but after returning from his first trip to Africa, in 1949, Joyce proved to be dispensable (at least for the time being), and was replaced by St Helena and Elephants. As he travelled during the 1950s in southern Africa and elsewhere, his collecting extended into many other aspects of Africana, and into the history and natural history of the islands which appealed to him most (St Helena, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Falklands, the Galapagos, and Pitcairn). He also started developing interests in particular people, most notably Sir William Cornwallis Harris, David Livingstone, Sir Richard Burton and Charles Darwin. In the early 1960s he started again on Joyce, branching out at the same time into Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and the Black Sun Press, and going off at various tangents. The fields in which he was most active must now be categorised as 'Travel', or 'Natural History', or 'Modern Literature'. One senses, however, that for his part the field in which he was active was 'Quentiniana', as defined by his own enthusiasms and by the experiences of his own life.
The abiding impression made by Quentin on at least one of his nephews was of a man who had managed to break free from the mould, and to make for himself a kind of life given to few. He would roll up once or twice a year in a fancy car, and tell stories of his latest (or not so latest) escapades: how he was chased up a tree by a rhinoceros, woken by lions prowling through an open camp, or whatever the year's excitement had been. We might not have believed all the stories, for lack of evidence, and we might not have wished to follow his example, for lack of imagination, but it was very reassuring to know that someone so close to home could do it if he tried.
Although many of Quentin's books are distinguished for their rarity, condition, and associations, it has to be said that he did not leave his effects in especially good order. When we started in earnest to work through his books and papers, in London and the USA, we had little idea of the extraordinary quality and bewildering variety of all that he had brought together, and for several weeks found wonderful things not only on shelves but also under tables, in kitchen drawers, and in bedroom cupboards. And mixed in with the piles of unsorted correspondence, and the mountains of annotated catalogues, we found all the documentary and photographic evidence for his stories. Every boy should have an explorer as an uncle; and so much the better, later on, if the uncle never had time to throw anything away, and collected books. In Quentin's case, the process of sorting it all out, though time-consuming, was a pleasure, a privilege, and an education.
Captions: Quentin Keynes in Mauritius, 1952.
Nyaneka girl, Leba, Humpata Highlands, South-West Angola, January 1951.