An OBE for James Willson

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James_Willson.jpgOver the course of the last three novels I've written, I've found that going on-site to a location helps me write about the events that I imagine to have taken place there.  For the first and third novels, Portnoy's Daughter and Waiting for Love Child respectively, "going on-site" never got more complicated than having drinks at a particular bar that crops up in the novel, or playing laser tag at the People's Liberation Army facility.  "On-site research" was more involved, however, for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing: I traveled through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and crossed back into China through the Torugart Pass . . . all to write passages that are no longer part of the novel.  No matter: I was honing my methodology.

Therefore, for my fourth novel, which takes place during WWI in British East Africa, I knew that I'd be criss-crossing the territory covered by the British and German armies.  In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my journey to the Narosera River, where Lord Delamere had camped out to recruit Masai scouts just after the start of the war.

This week I returned from a trip to Tsavo West, where most of the troops and action during the war took place.  On this research trip, I was incredibly lucky to have James Willson (pictured above) as my guide to the numerous forts and battlefields that we toured.

The East African front during WWI is not one that is well known.  (Indeed, Ross Anderson wrote a book about it called The Forgotten Front.)  Although ruins of forts and battlefields exist, no effort is made to demarcate, preserve, develop or commemorate the sites in Kenya.  (Imagine Gettysburg as a deserted, overgrown field, without tour guides, memorials or any public awareness of its significance.)  No one - not the British military, nor the Kenyan military, nor the history curricula of either country - is interested.

Shard_of_Rose's_Lime_Juice.jpgWith the exception of James Willson, that is.  The world's expert on these sites, Willson has discovered and/or explored numerous areas of significance to WWI, including Fort Mzima, Crater Fort, Maktau and Salaita.  Having read deeply on the subject, Willson is able to identify and map the different areas in the forts (trenches, command centers, parade grounds, tent encampments, etc.), and he has encyclopedic knowledge of the debris common at these ruins (shards of glass from Rose's lime juice bottles [pictured right], South African beer bottles, crushed tins that held bully beef, etc.).

Command_Center_at_Maktau.jpgWith Willson's guidance, the experience of soldiers in WWI clarified in an extraordinary manner.  We drove the route that soldiers marched, in the heat of the day, on their way into battle at Murka.  We picked our way through overgrown brush at Fort Mashoti that the soldiers had clear cut.  From the command center at Maktau (pictured left), we surveyed the landscape on which British soldiers spied approaching German raiding parties.  

However much my on-site research had been useful writing previous books, their value is proving inordinately greater on this fourth book (my first work of historical fiction).  Thanks to Willson, my capacity to write battle scenes and other passages involving soldiers and military encampments has received a vast boost, far beyond anything I could have achieved through book research alone.

Willson's own research has been conducted entirely as a labor of love, independent of any research or academic institution and without any funding.  His knowledge is of incredible value both to our understanding of the past and to our present.  (Many of the issues that the British military faced during WWI - including troops from multiple locations speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and horrendous supply chain challenges - are currently faced by the US and British militaries in Iraq.)  What Willson knows has the potential to enrich many areas of human endeavor, including military strategy, literature and history.

We can only hope that the contents of Willson's brain will be adequately indexed in the coming years, so that his knowledge will be available to future generations.  Willson has written a book that should be forthcoming within the year or so, but his familiarity with the Tsavo landscape and the WWI sites cannot be fully conveyed in a book.  With luck, perhaps enough people will learn the lay of the sites from Willson, so that - when and if funding for preservation and memorialization becomes available - adequate knowledge underpinning those efforts will exist.

In the meantime, the cause of preservation, perpetuation of knowledge and honoring the dead will be well served by honoring the living.  In recognition of his contribution to humanity and history, James Willson deserves an expression of our gratitude.  While this blog post is certainly inadequate, an OBE seems about right. 

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on February 26, 2010 10:34 AM.

Don't Marry Him was the previous entry in this blog.

Resiliency, not rights is the next entry in this blog.

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