Searching for Conrad in Southeast Asia with Gavin Young

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“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”   Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of The Narcissus

The life and work of Joseph Conrad, it seems, was a huge influence on Gavin Young. 

 If the quote above inspired Gavin Young’s journalism and writing, the following quote from Conrad’s short story, Youth inspired Young’s desire to live, travel and to see the world:

I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, too soon, too soon – before life itself.

At the outset of In Search of Conrad, Young recalls that passage being read aloud to him during his school days and being intoxicated by this stirring summons “to wake up and start living”.  Gavin Young did just that.

After a period of national service following the Second World War, Young started working for a firm of ship brokers in Iraq.  It was while he was there that he met explorer Wilfred Thesiger, with whose encouragement he visited Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and subsequently spent two years living with them.  In a letter to his mother Thesiger commented: 

Gavin Young who works with a firm in Basra and is keen to see something of Arab tribal life has been with me for a week … He is a nice lad and I am always glad to help anyone who is keen on this sort of life.

An encounter with Wilfred Thesiger was not the only thing Young had in common with Eric Newby, another famous post-war travel writer.  

Young was steered towards journalism by Ian Fleming when they met in a bar in Tangiers in the 1950s. Turning down an offer from Fleming to join The Sunday Times, Young joined the Observer at the end of the 1950s, as had Newby and spent the next 30 years covering wars and revolutions in Angola, Nagaland, Cambodia, Iran and Yemen as well as enjoying spells as the newspaper’s correspondent in New York and Paris.

More than 20 years later when he was in his fifties, Young returned to the Marsh Arabs in Iraq and wrote what was to become his first travel book Return to the Marshes: Life with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.  

His subsequent travel books, Slow Boats to China (a journey by 23 vessels from Greece to China) and Slow Boats Home (his return to England by boat via the South Seas, Cape Horn and West Africa) were better received but is was with In Search of Conrad that Young was, in 1991, awarded the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award (later becoming the Dolman Best Travel Book Award and then the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year).

As its title suggests, In Search of Conrad is a literary pilgrimage.  In this engrossing book, Young talks of his lifelong obsession with Conrad’s books and his literary quest to seek out the world and characters which inhabit Conrad’s novels Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim; the men who:

have tinged with romance the region of shallow waters and forest-clad islands that life far east and still mysterious between the deep waters of two oceans.      

Young explains how Conrad was a reader first (“I don’t know what would have become of me if I had not been [a reading boy]”), before he became a traveller and seaman and then settled in England after 20 years at sea to pour his experiences into his writing.  

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.  Marlow in The Heart of Darkness

He follows Conrad’s journeys to the East in search of the places he visited and looking for clues about the stories and adventurers who inspired both characters and plots in his novels. 

Young’s quest takes him on journeys across the Java Sea, through the Gulf of Siam, and to the Makassar Straits visiting Bangka, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Celebes (now Sulawesi), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.  It is a fascinating journey not only for its literary investigation but for the places Young visits including some still remote places which only now, through the advent of budget airlines in Southeast Asia, are becoming more accessible to travellers.     

Young’s own enthusiasm for Conrad’s books, history and travel is infectious and it was easy to feel drawn into his quest.  Relying on Norman Sherry’s (Graham green’s biographer) as well as his own investigations Young brings enigmatic characters from Conrad’s novel into sharper focus with biographical detail and historical description of 19th century life in Southeast Asia.

Young effortlessly blends his own travelogue and descriptions of the East with Conrad’s own, slipping between Conrad’s time and his own.  Pre-empting any charge of plagiarism, Young calls it a collaboration.  It is effective and lends parts of the book a dreamlike quality.    

For readers who have been inspired to visit places to experience what they have read on the page, or for anyone with an interest in less visited places Southeast Asia, this is an excellent read.     

Young’s other books include Worlds Apart, a collection of essays and journalism, From Sea to Shining Sea, about America, A Wavering Grace, about Vietnam and Beyond Lion Rock, the story of Cathay Pacific Airways. Gavin Young died in 2001.  

Read more about Gavin Young’s life and career on Faber & Faber’s blog or in the obituaries from The Observer and The Telegraph.

    

 

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