From The Sunday Times April 8, 2007

Going for a song
Interview by Vikki Rimmer

Tom Hart Dyke on Always Look On The Bright Side of Life/Monty Python

It’s always been about the plants for me. Plants and adventure. It’s in the blood. My two great-uncles — Boyd and Claude — were the first explorers to map the Nile region in Chad. Both, unfortunately, lost their lives in search of adventure, and lie buried in Chad. I was luckier than Uncle Boyd and Uncle Claude. I made it out of my “adventure” in one piece.

In 2000, I was kidnapped on a plant-hunting expedition that went spectacularly wrong. I was held hostage with my travelling companion, Paul Winder, in a remote region of South America called the Darien Gap. It is a place of legend, the only break in the Pan-American Highway, which runs from Alaska to the tip of South America. It is impregnable — a strip of swamp and jungle that was our home for nine long months.

Our captors were crazy. We never really worked out who they were, and they were extremely suspicious of us — at one point, they thought we were the CIA. We tried everything we could to persuade them that we were just Tom, a plant-hunter, and Paul, a bad skier and adventurer. In an attempt to sound like average Joes, we had promised to dance and sing for them. Not long into our ordeal, we were persuaded that we could put it off no longer. Paul suggested we sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

As we limbered up, Paul even toyed with the idea of shouting a rock star-style “Hello, Colombia!”, except we were never really sure of our location in the jungle. Instead, I said in Spanish, “This is the national anthem of Great Britain.” Then I turned to Paul in a slight panic and said, “I don’t know the verses.” Paul told me not to worry. He would sing them. He started in a wavery baritone and I joined in when we got to “Always look on the bright side of life / De-doo-de-doo-de-doo-de-doo”.

We were rubbish at whistling, so we sang the “doo-de-doos” while kicking our legs in the air and flinging our arms upwards at the same time. I began to improvise and bring my knees up to meet my chin. “If life seems jolly rotten,” Paul sang, I kicked, “there’s something you’ve forgotten” — knees up — “and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.” Paul screamed at the guerrillas to join in. Everyone was laughing; tears of laughter were rolling down the cheeks of a young female guerrilla. That was until I brought my foot down hard and accidentally crushed her little perrico bird, which had been perched behind me. There were 10 seconds of silence, then the whole camp exploded into laughter. Whenever I hear the song, I’m instantly transported back to what was the strangest period of my life.>

Tom Hart Dyke’s new book, An Englishman’s Home: Adventures of an Eccentric Gardener, is published by Bantam (£18.99, hardback); he can be seen in the BBC2 documentary series Return to Lullingstone Castle on Mondays at 8.30pm
Interview by Vikki Rimmer