Searching for Conrad in Southeast Asia with Gavin Young

“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.

    

 

Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill.  The trick is to get back down alive.”

Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article.  In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest.  He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall.  As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died.  Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.

Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty.  It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.  

He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research.  However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers.   Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude.  His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”).  He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:

“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”  

Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either:  “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.  

Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice).  Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity.  There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional.  However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and  “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy?  The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:

To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”