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: A Few Perfect Hours, Josh Neufeld

A Few Perfect Hours
by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics, 2004)

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits…
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of he world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardized at home
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness

Heeding Shakespeare’s words, Josh Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari, left the United States and went travelling together.  Over the course of a year and half they backpacked from Hong Kong, through South East Asia and the Balkans before stopping in Prague.

As Sari explains in her foreward:

The challenge of the backpacking odyssey is unique. Stripped of the normal scaffolding of life, we must narrate our own adventures to die them weight and to give ourselves form.  When we travel, we become both actor and storyteller, hero and scribe.

Neufeld narrates their story (with additional words from Sari) in the form of the graphic novel.  While A Few Perfect Hours covers some well trodden backpacker countries and experiences, Neufeld does so with warmth, originality and honesty.  

Along the way, the pair work as extras in a Singapore soap opera, confront their fears in a Thai cave, visit an off the beaten track organic farm, get an unexpected religious experience at a Buddhist festival, have an, almost, encounter with an ice cream salesman in Serbia and travel by train through Belgrade during 1993.

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While Neufeld may be the hero of his tales, he is not afraid to lay bare and share his own fears, misgivings and reactions which bring the stories to life, tinge them with reality and bring the personal to the insights he gains from his travelling experiences.  Part of A Few Perfect Hours‘ charm lies in the insights gained from the ‘small’ or everyday in the stories and also the travellers’ tips interspersed among them.  Meanwhile, the illustrations keep the tales fresh, bringing humour and immediacy to the scenes and adding detail and elements of fantasy.

Comics or graphic novels are not everyone but this is a nice collection, well complemented by Sari’s foreward.  A Few Perfect Hours is part of a growing body of graphic travel writing, a form which lends itself well to the genre.  As Eddie Campbell (author of From Hell) sums it up on the back cover:

The travel book has a tradition both grand and frivolous.  It’s a literary form that continues to welcome the embellishment of illustration long after fiction has expunged them, whether through photographs or the author’s own sketches of the sights seen. It has always looks to me, therefore, like a waiting challenge for the so-called comic book.   

A Few Perfect Hours was self-published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation.   Learn more about Neufeld and his work at www.joshcomix.com.

 

Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

Published by W&N (2009) (originally published in 1989 by BBC)

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I’m glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet.

It is more then 25 years since Monty Python member, Michael Palin, left on his round the world journey for the BBC in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s fictional traveller, Phileas Fogg.    

That journey around the world was, in his own words, the one that “started the ball rolling” and, in those 25 years, Palin has embarked on a second career as TV travel presenter and has completed a further seven journeys, from Pole to Pole, across the Sahara, to the Himlayas, around Eastern Europe, in pursuit of Hemingway and lastly to Brazil.   All have been filmed and broadcast by the BBC and have accompanying books (as well as audiobooks, narrated by Palin).  So successful was Palin’s second career as traveller and adventurer that it culminated in him being president of the Royal Geographical Society between 2009 and 2012.

Palin was not the BBC’s first choice as presenter for the journey; three others turned the role down before it was offered to him.  One of those was Alan Whicker, presenter of Whicker’s World, a TV magazine program reporting from the round the world that ran on British television for 30 years.  In an interview with Palin and his co-producer, Roger Mills, to mark the anniversary of Palin’s 80 day journey and to promote the third volume of Palin’s diaries which cover most of his travelling period, Mills recalls how the production team did their best to put Whicker off accepting the job.  Apparently Whicker later called the programme “a seven-hour ego trip” (read more here).  The series was a success though and the BBC screened seven instead of the six originally planned episodes and the final programme was viewed by 12 million.     

The 80 day journey tried to stick as closely to Fogg’s route as possible.   Travel by plane was not allowed.   In an age where travel is widespread and the world is only a click away courtesy of Youtube or Vimeo, it would be easy to question the value of such a journey.  Palin himself admits his journey never allowed time to  “dig very deep” and in his introduction acknowledged that “those expecting profound international insights will be disappointed.” In an interview for A&E in the US promoting the TV series and aired after the first episode, Palin was asked what he now felt about air travel and replied:

its highly functional and a bit aseptic it’s rather like being in a nice piece of cling wrap; you soar over the world and the aircraft cabin you’re in is exactly like the lounge you get out into like the hotel you go to, there are no smells sounds you don’t really touch and feel the world much, I mean, if I have to go from A to B very quickly yes fine suits me, but the experience of going across the Atlantic by ship was so utterly different to going across the Atlantic by plane and it gives you time, time to think about the culture you’ve just left and time to sort of prepare yourself for he next one.

The point was simply the opportunity to make a journey like this overland and experience the scale of the world and the relation of countries and cultures to one another.  To see, hear, smell and touch it:

Travel when the hands get dirty, when contact is made, brought home to me how much we all see of the world on television and in the newspapers, and how little we know of it. Journeys like this can only be good for us. (from the Afterword)

This is where Around the World in 80 Days is best.  Not in the set pieces or the traditional sights but in the people Palin meets and speaks to: the rubbish collectors in Venice, the crew on the many ships he travels on (and particularly the dhow) or the street barber in Bombay.   The contrasts of elation and frustration and of hurrying to meet connections and waiting; those “still pools at the side of the stream, where for a while, nothing at all moves.”  And the fact that despite the BBC’s best efforts, things don’t always go to plan and although making his journey at the end of the 20th century, Palin struggles to ‘keep pace’ with Fogg’s fictional 19th century journey.  

These things, and Palin’s natural approach, make this journey both personal and satisfying as we experience the generosity he encounters as he circles the globe and the sadness he feels at constantly leaving places people and people he has known only for a short time. Ironically though, given the scale of his journey, nowhere is the vastness of the world and our place in it made as clear as up Palin’s anticlimatic and frustrating return to an indifferent London. 

Photographs, videos, interactive maps of Palin’s route and the entire text of the book are online at www.palinstravels.co.uk together with materials relating to his other journeys. 

See Kathy Lette interview Michael Palin for the BBC’s Behind the Headlines in 1990 (the sound and video are a little out of synch but it is a quite funny contemporary interview):

For more on Palin’s role as President of the Royal Geographical Society, see this article from 2009 in the Independent newspaper.

Download and read Jules Verne’s original story for free from Amazon for Kindle or in other ebook formats for free from Gutenburg here.

Book: Overland to Singpore by Landrover, Tim Slessor

First Overland SlessorFirst Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005

 

 The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface.  Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial.  No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned.  Surviving  footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world.  Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest.  Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt.  Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing  They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company  Within months of  different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.

 

 

 

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