Monday, 16 February 2009

Adventure Writing: An Outsider Art

It's been a while since I wrote about the books that are the inspiration for this blog. There are a few that have given me a glimpse of how I'd like to be, shaping my thinking and aspirations. 
The thing that connects them all is that they chronicle the journey of outsiders. Some have the outsider label forced upon them, others are compelled to seek out new ways of being to escape a life they feel unsuited to.

Ishi was the ultimate outsider; having literally stepped out of the stone age into the Edwardian age. But his story wouldn't have been brought to life for me in the same way if it weren't for his friend and counterpoint Saxton Pope. A man who, when the chance presented itself was ready to make the journey in the opposite direction.   If I couldn't become more like Ishi; wild, free, and indistinguishable from the landscape. I'd happily settle for being like Saxton Pope. The old school gent afield, bypassing convention, passionately curious about the world beyond his understanding, while carrying the good bits of home with him. An outsider partially by choice, partially because it's his default setting to swim against the tide.

Another inspiration who fits that frame is Eric Newby. Not a hunter or fisherman, but a total card, and some spinner of yarns....

'A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush' is one of the greatest travel books ever written and how its written. Newby conjures up the droll gentleman adventurer better than anyone, with the notion of adventure as a pursuit anyone could take up as an alternative to say, playing bridge or stamp collecting.

Newby could never have been mistaken for an ordinary man, not even at a hundred yards. His youth was full of high adventure; leave private school, work aboard a four-masted ship, win boxing matches against other crew members, serve in the special boat service (the SAS without the shoot-and-tell autobiographies) taken prisoner in WWII, escapes, betrayed, recaptured, meets Wanda, after the war returning to Italy to see the people who had sheltered him and while he's there he marries the stunning Wanda.

Surely this would be enough to convince anyone that they had a certain something. Something, which should be listened to. Followed even. But somehow he found himself working in woman's fashion, a field he latter admitted that he was totally unsuited for and had been told he was unsuited to. Daily. For ten years.

During the lunch hour of one particularly trying day at the office [told to hilarious effect in chapter two] he was to send a telegram to his pal Hugh Carless that changed his already remarkable life forever.


He returned from lunch a changed man. Sending that telegram was powerful magik. Magik that was to evoke all that was best in him. Providence of course answered, in this case by return telegram.


Within weeks he has jacked in his job, set about filling their small flat’s living room with the giant bewildering pile of specialist kit that such an endeavor needs. Rented the flat out, arranged for Wanda and the children to live with his mum and dad. Wanda must absolutely rock because she thinks this is all good and accompanies the boys on the first leg of the journey!

In order to get the visas they need Newby and Carless decide that a compelling reason to go to Nuristan would be - mountaineering. Knowing the sum total of not-a-lot about mountaineering they decide that a weekends ‘practice’ would be in order and spend the weekend in a hilly part of Wales seeking guidance from climbing obsessed waitresses and bearded men in rough-hewn sweaters. I could spend all night writing out hilarious scenes from the book, but I’m not going to spoil it for you.

Newby is prepared to go a long way to break out of the monotony of a life that is totally untrue to him. However much he understates it, he is the real deal himself - a true explorer. Finding hither to hidden parts of himself in unmapped parts of the world. 
One scene that resonates with me shows that just like the rest of us, however far you go to escape the disappointing mediocrity of the modern world, even when he’s stepped over the ragged edge and is trekking though an alien landscape amongst people whose lives and customs havent changed much since the time of their prophet, he bumps into a living legend whose been SO much further.

We came down into a junction in the Panjshir river. We'd been travelling all day, and all night, crossing a very wild pass. "Look," said Hugh, my companion, "it must be Thesiger."
Thesiger's horses lurched to a standstill on the execrable track. They were deep-loaded with great wooden presses, marked "British Museum", and black tin trunks.
The party consisted of two villainous-looking tribesmen dressed like royal mourners in long overcoats reaching to the ankles; a shivering Tajik cook, to whom some strange mutation had given bright red hair, unsuitably dressed for central Asia in crippling pointed brown shoes and natty socks supported by suspenders, but no trousers; the interpreter, a gloomy-looking middle-class Afghan in a coma of fatigue, wearing dark glasses, a double-breasted lounge suit and an American hat with stitching all over it; and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, 45 years old and as hard as nails, in an old tweed jacket, a pair of thin grey cotton trousers, rope-soled Persian slippers and a woollen cap comforter.
"Turn round," he said, "you'll stay the night with us. We're going to kill some chickens."
We tried to explain that we had to get to Kabul but our men, who professed to understand no English but were reluctant to pass through the gorges at night, had already turned the horses and were making for the collection of miserable hovels that was the nearest village.
Soon we were sitting under some mulberry trees, surrounded by the entire population, with all Thesiger's belongings piled up behind us. "Can't speak a word of the language," he said cheerfully. "Know a lot of the Koran by heart but not a word of Persian. Still, it's not really necessary. Here, you," he shouted at the cook, who had only entered his service the day before and had never seen another Englishman. "Make some green tea and a lot of chicken and rice - three chickens." After two hours the chickens arrived; they were like elastic, only the rice and gravy were delicious. Famished, we wrestled with the bones in the darkness.
"England's going to pot," said Thesiger, as Hugh and I lay smoking the interpreter's king-size cigarettes, the first for a fortnight. "Look at this shirt, I've only had it three years, now it's splitting. Same with tailors; Gull and Croke made me a pair of whipcord trousers to go to the Atlas Mountains. Sixteen guineas - wore a hole in them in a fortnight. Bought half a dozen shotguns to give to my headmen, well-known make, 20 guineas apiece, absolute rubbish."
The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air beds. "God, you must be a couple of pansies," said Thesiger.

The last word goes to the writer Evelyn Waugh who, mistaking our Newby for another Newby, agreed to write a preface for the first edition.

'Dear reader if you have any softness left for the idiosyncrasies of our rough island race, fall to and enjoy this characteristic artifact.'