Financial Times, 15/16 January 1994

OBSCURE KINGDOMS by Edward Fox Hamish Hamilton £16.99, 240 pages

A walk on the royal side

A. C. Grayling

In this stylish, informative and sometimes very funny book, American-born journalist Edward Fox recounts his personal pilgrimage to five of the world's remoter monarchies. He went because he wished to understand what makes kings and kingdoms tick. His travels took him to Tonga, Oman, Nigeria, Swaziland and Java. In each he had fascinating and sometimes hilarious adventures, related in a dry and sharply observant prose which signals the arrival, in this first book, of a major writing talent.

Fox turned his back on European royalties because he wished to encounter monarchy afresh, in unfamiliar guises. But he repeatedly found himself "face to face with what I was fleeing: the hand of the British, recreating the empire in their own image." Were it not for the British none of these monarchies would be as they are; most would not even exist.

Tonga's King Tupou IV granted Fox an audience, and during it demonstrated a simplified method of addition for use in primary schools. The King not only invents things -- a joint rugby and soccer goal post, used all over Tonga, is another example -- but conducts agricultural experiments, solves archaeological problems, and is the holder of his kingdom's pole-vault record. He is the fattest man in Tonga because he eats the most, a sign of royal power. It is clear that Fox, although bemused by Tupou, enjoyed meet him, and learned an important lesson: that delays and difficulties are occupational hazards of royalty-watching.

It was much more difficult for Fox to get at His Majesty the Sultan of Oman, an absolute monarch in the traditional oriental mould. He succeeded in attending a levée at which subjects queue to shake the Sultan's hand; but requests for an interview were denied, and when Fox tried to observe the Sultan on his annual meet-the-people tour, in a Bedouin-style cavalcade with Mercedes Benzes substituting for camels, he failed. So instead he read the history of Oman and the "mirrors for princes" written to instruct rulers, and pondered on the fact that “roads and roundabouts are the distinctive post-oil Arabian art form", explained perhaps by the fact that they represent an "ultimate triumph over the former hardships of desert travel". Fox did not come away unimpressed; when he went to shake the Sultan's hand it was in a throne-room that looked like the inside of a gigantic Fabergé egg.

After difficulties of Oman Fox found Nigeria a joy, because it has not one but hundreds of kings and he was able to interview a number of them -- the Aragbiji of Irigbiji, the Akirun of Ikirun, and even the two greatest "obas", the Alaafin of Oyo and the Ooni of Ife. In Yoruba religion Ife is the site of Creation. The exact spot, Fox reports, lies opposite a Total petrol station, marked by an enigmatic granite pillar. Each oba is a guardian of the traditional religion. For those who are now Moslem or Christian this presents difficulties. To become an oba one has to eat the dried heart of one's predecessor, served in soup. But the benefits, it seems, usually outweigh scruples; on meeting an oba one says "Kabiyesi!" which can either be translated "May you live long" or "You cannot be contradicted".

Heartened by his successes in Nigeria Fox proceeded to Swaziland, only to be disappointed again. Young King Mswati III proved unmeetable, hidden behind layers of suspicious advisers. Fox noted a mysterious empathy between the Swazis and the British: "They saw a bit of themselves in  each other. Each had a culture of clenched good manners, restraint, discipline, understatement and secrecy, arranged in a strict social hierarchy with a King at the top." The Swazis have a saying: "Let the Swazi and the English deceive each other with politeness, and the Zulu and the Boer have it out with clubs."

But all frustrations were compensated in Java, where Fox had a satisfying encounter with Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta, whose full name runs to two dozen words. Here Fox was able to meditate on the secret of monarchy: its place between the secular and divine, its use of the mysteries of inaccessibility, its function as a centre for artistic display, political patronage, and symbolic meanings. It is a privilege of royalty to be unavailable when it chooses; in Nigeria an oba's henchmen would turn away petitioners by saying his master was still abed. "These kings were like disappointing zoo animals," Fox remarks, "always asleep when you wanted to see them.”

The author of this highly entertaining mixture of travelogue, history and royal essay appears as a wryly engaging observer. One looks forward to his next book with great relish.