Peter Collins: James Cameron and the Tabora Hotel

James Cameron, image courtesy of Peter Collins

If there was a golden age of journalism, then surely James Cameron represented Great Britain. You could throw in the Commonwealth countries and its former colonies for good measure, for he would have invariably visited them all, drank in their bars, met their dignitaries and moved amongst their people.

Born in 1911, Mark James Walter Cameron learnt the rudiments of his trade in the offices of Scottish newspapers before heading south to London’s Daily Express and eventually a life on the road as a foreign correspondent and a role which would define not only Cameron the man but the standard for journalists to follow the world over.

Cameron epitomized the well-spoken Brit abroad; slicked-back hair and lightweight suit, a drink and cigarette never far from his lips, he witnessed first-hand some of the truly momentous moments of the twentieth century and met many of its greatest influencers. Who else would refuse the opportunity to take Gandhi’s famous white robe when offered it by the great man himself? A man who described himself as “Conservative in every way except politics,” he nonetheless earned himself a reputation as a global traveler who plied his craft in bars, hotels and war zones the world over.

He witnessed the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, was the first foreign journalist with special access to report on life for the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, spoke out against atrocities by South Korean troops when the UN turned a blind eye, was a founding member of CND and became friends with Nehru and Albert Schweizer despite his public criticisms. Cameron was legendary for speaking his mind based on factual evidence; his reports, both written and televised were balanced, thought-provoking and honest; his tone and turn of phrase offered comfort and trust for a war-weary public but seldom came without a warning for those who sought to capitalize on the downtrodden.

That honesty often shone through in his descriptions of life as a travelling journalist. Despite the reputation, Cameron would pour water on the fire of anyone who thought his journeyman life was glamorous. It seldom was. Travelling across Africa shortly after the Second World War he found himself in Tabora: “But the worst place of all, the one truly abysmal interlude of the African journey, was Tabora.”

Blighted by toothache on a route taking him from Dar-es-Salaam via Morogoro and Dodoma on the old slave route, Cameron came to the depressing realization that travelling through Tanganyika—what is now Tanzania, a state three times the size of his native Britain—there were only seven dentists and thirty seven doctors. But worse was to come; what was supposed to have been an overnight stay in the state capitol became a torturous five day stay at the Tabora Hotel where the only words spoken to him and which would haunt him all week were “Bado Kidogo”—”Not just yet”.

“From the start there was nothing to do, but literally. Usually, hotel life, however desolate, provides at least momentary diversions, odd encounters, desultory fragments of interest. Tabora had nothing. For the first three days I was the one and only guest.”

Bereft of words of any form, be it in book, magazine or a simple advert, Cameron grew desperate for a literary diversion. Eating alone in a deserted restaurant and despite the “abominable” food he stretched the dining experience out for as long as he could bear. The heat prevented him from writing. Information on his flight out non-existent, he rejoiced at the sight of a guest:

“He was a middle-aged German; he ran a sisal-plantation down the line somewhere. Over the odious dinner that night we became almost blood brothers. He expressed deep sympathy with our contemporary colonial troubles in Kenya, it would not have happened thus in the old days.”

Later they sat in the funeral lounge and drank copious amounts of Portuguese brandy, as the evening wore on the German pulled out his wallet to show Cameron a picture of his wife:

And “there was the girl—and there too in a mounted shield was the other face: somberly staring, moustached, preposterous and abominable.

“’Heil’, said my friend absently. ‘We live and we die, and we live. Your good health.’ He put the picture away, familiar and long dead: its name had been Adolf Hitler, who never touched Portuguese brandy. Bado Kidogo, said I; and I wished I were once again alone and bored.”