by Redmond O’Hanlon

Redmond O’Hanlon’s description of his visit (1983) to me is somewhat novelistic. Some of this dialogue never took place; but I have to admit that his overall picture does paint the truth!

There remained but one obvious authority to consult, John Hatt, author of The Tropical Traveller (1982), the modern equivalent of Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel; or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1855).

For a man who had been everywhere Hatt seemed far too young, until I realised, with some misgivings on our own account, that the speed and force with which he both talked and Dunlop-green-flashed about the room in his gym shoes was a genuine expression of his genetic make-up; and that a circumnavigation of the globe once a week at the double would probably pose him no particular problem.

“Let me see,” said Hatt, skydiving towards his sofa and collecting a notebook from a table in mid-flight. “oh yes – take lots of postcards of the Queen, preferably on horseback, and showing all four legs because they think she’s all of a piece. And for the Headmen, packets of salt and aginomonto, sarongs, waterproof digital watches. For yourselves – Hatt’s tips for travellers – those sealable transparent document bags, Tubigrip bandage for every part of your anatomy and, as well as your jungle boots, gym shoes. Because in the longhouses you will have to dance every night. It’s simply impossible to refuse. Three or four girls will come and pull you up and then you have to do your thing in front of the assembled tribe – just twenty minutes or so. No problem really. And then you must sing, of course. Why not learn a duet? A duet would be splendid, absolutely splendid. The lives of the primitive farmers are pretty monotonous, after all, and isolated and lonely when they are staying out in their huts on the hill-padi fields, so when they are in the longhouse together they snatch any chance to have a party, and you’ll provide a good excuse. You’re expected to entertain them in any way you can; and you’re also expected to get very drunk indeed. Rice-wine, tuak, is deceptively mild, and rice-brandy, arak, is every bit as lethal as it tastes. There’s really no escape. Even where you’re flat out on the floor, when the bundles of heads in their rattan nets start to jiggle about and wink at you, you’re not off the hook. The girls hold your nose; and when you open your mouth to breathe they tip in another glass or two. Then you’ll discover just how arak can supercharge an ordinary nightmare. I used to dream that I’d wake up with a palang.”

“A palang?” we asked, uneasily.

“Oh, it’s quite a simple little operation, really,” said Hatt, “although sepsis is always a problem. They clamp the penis in an instrument that looks like a small bow; and then drive a six-inch nail through it, just beneath the glans.”

Hang on,” said Fenton.

“No – it’s perfectly true,” said Hatt, darting at his bookshelves like a kingfisher into the water. “I can even give you a reference. Here we are. How’s that? The Sarawak Museum Journal volume VII, December 1956. It’s a by-the-way in an article by Tom Harrisson on the Borneo rhinoceros:

“One of the exhibits that excites the most interest in our museum is that of the palang. This is the tube or rod of bamboo, bone, hardwood, etc, with which the end of the penis is pierced among many inland people, principally the Indonesian Kenyahs, but also many others – and lately even spreading to the Kelabits in the uplands. In each end of this centre-piece may be attached knobs, points of even blades of suitable material. Some men have two palang, at right angles through the penis tip.

“The function of this device is, superficially, to add to the sexual pleasure of the women by stimulating and extending the inner walls of the vagina. It is, in this, in my experience decidedly successful.

“We also have a ‘natural’ palang, exhibited alongside. This is the penis of a Borneo rhinoceros. In the natural state this powerful piece of the anatomy has, about four inches behind the tip, a similar sort of cross-bar, projecting nearly two inches out on each side. When tense, this becomes a fairly rigid bar, much like the human palang in general implication. The one we have on show in the Museum has had a hardwood rod fixed in it (to keep it rigid). As such, these things were included among the esoterica of inland longhouses, along with sacred stones, beads, strange teeth and other charms used mainly in connection with human head and fertility ceremonies.

“Many who have handled this pachyderm device have been unable to credit that it is ‘genuine’. However, in the untouched state it can be even more impressive. The penis of another male (with not full-size horn) in our possession measures over a foot and a half (relaxed), has a longer tip and cross-piece than the Museum’s displayed one…

“Well,” said Hatt, helpfully, “if Harrisson can have it done, I don’t see why you shouldn’t. And I’d be grateful if you could test two other little ideas of mine: could one of you take massive doses of vitamin B1 (thiamine) at about three o’clock every afternoon? And then let me know if it keeps off the mosquitoes?”

“Do we make a comparative count of bites? Or will the first to get malaria decide the issue?”

“Yes, yes – either will do. And could you get your chemist to make this up? It’s a possible new repellent”

Hatt handed [James] Fenton a page of notebook on which was inscribed:

2-EPHYL-1-3-HEXANDIOL 846, gr/1


“But Hatt,” said Fenton, “how do we know that this isn’t dynamite?”

Other brief biographical articles

The Typographical Traveller

View from the Hill