Nigel Barley: The Innocent Anthropologist (Episode #8)

Nigel Barley

Nigel Barley is the author of some 22 books, including White Rajah and A Plague of Caterpillars.

He studied Modern Languages at Cambridge before completing a doctorate in Social Anthropology at Oxford. His first book, The Innocent Anthropologist, was based on his fieldwork in west Africa amongst the Dowayo people of North Cameroon.

Barley left academia to work as a curator at the British Museum in the Department of  Ethnography, where he stayed for some twenty years. 

He’s been nominated twice for the Travelex Writer of the Year Award, and in 2002 won the  Foreign Press Association prize for travel writing.

We spoke about the grim reality of fieldwork, his odd attraction for monkeys, and why fiction tells us more than anthropology about what it means to be human.

These are the books we mentioned in the podcast:

We also spoke about:

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Ryan. Earlier this morning I **read that ‘Nigel Barley’ had reported that “a museum colleague has decreed that his ashes shall be flung into the eyes of the Trustees of the British Museum”.

    ‘The colleague’ was not identified. I’ve never heard of Nigel Barley either. The book was describing worldwide cultures in terms of human remains. The author is Sallie Tisdale. **The title, Advice for the dying* A Practical Perspective on Death. *And Those Who Love Them.

    I googled the quote. Not the reporter. Curiosity not for Nigel Barley but for the colleague and his reasoning.

    Your podcast appeared and I’ve just finished listening. I had wondered if this memorably explosive statement would appear from behind a screen somewhere in his meanderings. But no. Maybe it’s out there somewhere else.

    Thanks to your research for your podcast I now know that you are both anthropologists, from different generations and different parts of the commonwealth.

    Good to hear the exchanges and the similarities between very different experiences within the same discipline.

    Thanks for your podcast.

    • Thank you Dorothy, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the podcast. Nigel’s innocent anthropologist trilogy is hilarious and insightful. A great read, highly recommended.

  • Dear Ryan,

    I hope this email finds you well. I am contacting you from Frank Films, a production company based in the UK. We have recently been commissioned to make a series for the BBC, focusing on communities around the world who have retained their cultural identity and traditions. We have been looking into communities in Cameroon, and I naturally came across the work of Nigel Barley, whom I cam see you have worked with. I am struggling to find his contact details online, and I wondered if you might be able to share (with his permission). Apologies for such a direct request, but it would be much appreciated if something might be possible.



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