INTERVIEW by Seki Lynch

NWR Issue 99

John Harrison

John Harrison is an adventurer, guide and writer of the Arctic, Antarctic and Latin American regions. His first book, Where the Earth Ends - A Journey Beyond Patagonia, which charts his route through Argentina, Chile and his unexpected journey to Antarctica, became a Sunday Times Book of the Week. While Cloud Road: A Journey Through The Inca Heartland won the Wales Book of the Year Prize for its portrayal of the Andean nation, through the eyes of the first gringo the villagers had ever seen. John's new work, Forgotten Footprints, explores the history of the most frequented part of Antarctica. Currently he plans to follow the path the Cortés’ took through Mexico in 1519, the same year the Aztecs predicted the end of the world. John Harrison is a regular contributor to NWR, most recently as author of the travel series, Islands on the Edge, published in NWR 96 (‘St Kilda’), NWR 97 (‘Orkney’) and NWR 99 (‘Spitsbergen’, 1 March 2013).

NWR: Travel is in your blood, coming from a long line of aviators and seafarers. What made you first start writing about your experiences?

JH: I’ve been a writer of some sort since schooldays when I wrote poetry, influenced only and entirely by the three Penguin Mersey Poets; but as they were Roger McGough, Adrian Henry and Brian Patten, it wasn’t a bad place to begin. I think many writers try different areas of creative writing before settling on the one or ones they feel most comfortable in. I turned to fiction in my twenties, then, when I couldn’t get novels published, to travel writing. Travelling for holidays is very different from travelling to write, and it’s a pity more aspirant travel writers don’t realise this. If you are not travelling with the goal of exploring it for a book, and sacrificing fun for more hard-won experiences, there’s little anyone else would want to read. It took me a long time to screw up the courage to try a travel book because I was in awe of the expertise and knowledge of writers like Theroux and Chatwin, though I might have been less impressed if I had known what I do now, that effect was always more important to them than strict factual accuracy.

The spur to write Where the Earth Ends - A Journey Beyond Patagonia, was reading a book by Lucas Bridges, Uttermost Part of the Earth. Bridges had grown up in Patagonia and wrote from the inside. His style was cool in the sense of unexcited, which I liked. I could do cool. I had absorbed T. S. Eliot’s dictum that a writer could evoke emotion most powerfully by sublimating his own. Cool also suits the open wastes of southern South America. I have met many of Lucas Bridges’ surviving relatives down there, and they have inherited his no-nonsense character.

NWR: You've said your attraction to Latin America was sparked as a boy, seeing Machu Picchu in a National Geographic magazine, but what was the allure of places such as Spitsbergen?

JH: I spent my years eight to twelve in Lakeside, Cardiff, where the monument to Scott stood, just beyond reach, in the waters of the park lake. You learned not to stand there longer than a minute or some old codger would pin you to the railings with an interminable half-correct version of the expedition. So Scott was hard to avoid, I even got given a book about him as a Sunday school prize. Clean polar deaths were the propaganda to send us to sacrifice ourselves for our country in wars and other fine events. It was a long time before decent documentary programmes came out of Antarctica, so the books continued to be the memory-makers of Antarctica long after David Attenborough had immersed us in Komodo dragons and other tropical pleasantries.

I ended up there by accident as Where the Earth Ends, tells, jumping on a tourist ship at two days notice. It took nearly two years to go back working as a guide, but work in the Arctic followed; your main value to the cruise companies in those days was not so much your academic knowledge as the ability to drive powerboats in ice-filled water, and bring back roughly the same number of passengers. The common attraction of polar areas is a struggle brought down to simple elements: man versus nature. It’s what organisms do: test themselves at the limits of their range.

NWR: Research is clearly essential to your work, but one gets a sense that discovering the past is just as important, if not at times, more so than your own physical journey. Why does history feature so much in your writing?

JH: The books are a way of telling the story of a place; I was never interested in a survey of a country as it is now. I think the days of being able to say ‘This is Mexico today’ are gone, it will be out of date before it hits the shelves, while newspapers and the internet will update in hours. History also changes, but more slowly, and it remains recognisable. Places continue to exist in the different times they have passed through. Their sense of themselves is bound up with how they got there. The 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony was a theatrical example of a team trying to present that four dimensional image of a country with time included.

I have found myself frequently re-writing the history, not out of any desire to be a revisionist, but simply because I couldn’t accept much of the recycled myths that were on offer, and I think discovering the inadequacy of prevailing myths is one of the great attractions of the work: the books take around five years from inception to publication, and if you just recycle everything, that’s a long time with your brain in second gear. For example, if you ask a table of people about the conquest of Mexico, someone will recall that Cortés was greatly assisted by providentially arriving in Mexico in the year that the god Quetzalcoatl was expected to return and reclaim his kingdom. It’s rubbish, but it’s too neat a story not to repeat in every twenty-five minute television documentary about the Conquistadors. Quetzalcoatl was way down the pantheon of gods in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, no one cared if he came back or stayed away, and no connection was made between the theology and the history until decades after the conquest.

It also fits in well with a comfortable Euro-centric view of world development, and with fundamentally racial theories about child-like natives living in an Edenic world, unable to withstand the shock of the modern world. A few hundred Spanish with their superior technology and worldview conquered tens of thousands of primitives living outside time. Native accounts, now much easier to examine after major advances in scholarship, do not even see the Spanish conquest as any kind of watermark or critical change in their histories. There had been a battle between tens of thousands from Tenochtitlan, and tens of thousands of their warring neighbours, with a few hundred Spanish. Does this matter today? Guerrilla groups are far more successful when they draw on ancient loyalties than when they try to rally rebellion round a Marxist banner. In Peru, many cultural experts think that if Abigail Guzman, the leader of the murderous Shining Path rebels, had played more upon traditional symbols and myths, and soft-pedalled Marxism, the whole country would have rallied to him. This is true to different degrees in different countries, but I haven’t yet become interested in a country which lacked deep history.

NWR: In this series for NWR, Islands on the Edge, you've covered St. Kilda, Orkney and in a piece published in the new spring edition, on 1 March, Spitsbergen. Which did you enjoy writing about most?

JH: St. Kilda was the easiest, and is part of my mythology from youth, brief moments of film or still shots of people being taken off islands deemed uninhabitable, or in the case of Tristan da Cunha, after its volcanic eruption, being taken back although it was deemed barely habitable. Real habitation finished in St. Kilda in 1930 and it provides a rounded tale of the struggle to survive on the minimum of resources. The other two were hard to encapsulate in an article, especially as normal life continues in different ways. Orkney gave me the most satisfaction because I thought I did manage to get around the different aspects of life there without losing the thread that it has a great historical continuity. Reading Orkney’s own George Mackay Brown was very helpful, one of Britain’s neglected writers, who at his best, in the middle novels is truly great, and is always interesting. I ended the article with a description of a Stone Age burial in which the body is left on a platform to be eaten by birds: that was a homage to Brown.

NWR: Do you have any other favourite travel writers of fiction and non-fiction?

JH: In non-fiction I love Colin Thubron writing about Russia and China. He’s not a household name, though The Times listed him as one of the 50 greatest post-war writers in Britain. He delivers everything I admire in travel writing, knowledge lightly worn, a faultless style that doesn’t draw attention to itself, and a fine sense of which people and places should be examined to give a feeling of a much larger whole. It’s all about selection of the right detail.

I’ve recently had one of the biggest walls in the house covered by built-in book shelving for my travel books, and now I can see them all in one place I realise that after an initial bout of immersing myself in classic travel accounts, I moved to reading mostly books by people who were not primarily writers but had grown up or worked somewhere when it was unspoiled, or at least spoiled in its own way, not in the homogenised way of so much of the world.

If someone was the only nurse on Tristan da Cunha they will have heard more secrets than any spy. Some of these works spawned their own mythology, like Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years A-Growing, who was born on Great Blasket island off the west of Ireland in 1904. The rugged self-sufficiency of the Arrans and the Blaskets was trumpeted as a model for independent austerity in the new Ireland, and a raft of similar memoirs followed. Sometimes history was unkind; DNA testing on the Arrans has found its dominant genes are from Cromwellian soldiers billeted there. Such accounts, because they were naive about the outside world, may tell stories of cruelty and pettiness that an outsider, however smitten with the people, would edit out, even if he was allowed to hear or see that side of them. So the stories of petty peasant revenge in the islanders’ memoirs are absent from the book of that good republican, J. M. Synge. He had been despatched by W. B. Yeats to record a life of pure Irishness, and the result was a chronicle of the good men and women of The Arran Islands, and no warts. That is why digging hard in your research is so important, if you don’t look past the first sources you get the same material as everyone else.

My knowledge of other travel writers, my new bookcases tell me, is skewed by whether they have written about the areas of the world I write about. I can see a fine collection of Middle East books, the majority unread. I really owe Freya Stark and Richard Burton some time, and in other areas, Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Norman Lewis. Current writers I pick up with pleasure include Jon Krakauer, who writes about the allure of mountains (Into Thin Air is about the 1996 storm which killed five on Everest) and killer wildernesses (Into the Wild, about a young man who burned the money in his wallet and walked into Alaska) without invoking the kind hippy-mystical philosophy that turns me off. Jim Perrin’s immersion in the country side brings a depth of knowledge-with-empathy that is irresistible, and I had the great luck to be sent Tom Anderson’s surfing elegy Chasing Dean to review, which explores nature through a particular window of expertise and affection.

Fiction went through a period of neglect when I was researching my travel books. It was difficult to read all day and find leisure in books at night. When I did dip into them they seemed a little light and self-indulgent if they couldn’t bring some narrative to life equivalent in mass to the fall of the Inca empire! For readers of a nervous disposition, this list below is one without surprises!

In my twenties, Scott Fitzgerald gave me a liking for a slightly florid, Keatsian version of prose which I try to let out as little as possible, and then under tight control. I tell myself it’s especially effective to burst into a lyrical passage if your usual style is plain, but no critic has ever seconded my opinion. Books I put on pedestals are, [bookdep:9781857150032i::Don Quixote] for doing modernism with humour, three hundred and fifty years before it was done without it; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes for portraying the feeling of lost youth with minimum sentimentality; and The Iliad for unpityingly honest use of human nature to drive plot. The writer I could always read, even after a hard days’ work, was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a pocket masterpiece. If I’d written that I wouldn’t be able to approach a blank sheet of paper again. I’ve always enjoyed the quality of plain and effective non-literary writing, like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Never be too proud to learn story-telling from the best-sellers.

NWR: Do you find it easier to write on location, or after your trips?

JH: Because I travel for months I can’t possibly write for the book until I get home: I simply don’t know what my story is; I can’t see the whole sweep. Travelling is for experience, research and detail. I take the equivalent of a side of A4 notes a day. I might scribble in a rough book but the diary entry is done in the tent or hostel in the evening. The exception is that I will draw pen sketches straight to diary. I have used tape recordings where I was able to recharge batteries regularly, which has been seldom. They are wonderfully evocative of mood, and they bring back the images of what you were looking at when it was running. They are brilliant for interviews as most people are now unselfconscious about microphones, and one records the pattern of an individual’s speech. Photos save time on describing physical details.

NWR: Can you draw any parallels between travel and writing?

JH: The simplest one is that a journey is a narrative in itself, with a purpose, a beginning, a middle and an end, with luck, a conclusion. A journey can be made for any purpose or no purpose. Some travel books are Grail narratives, they have a particular goal, at least nominally, to see a snow leopard, a Sumatran rhino, the perfect wave, find the palace of Xanadu or whatever it is. You run the risk that you don’t see one or find the place, and you need to fill that gap, usually with some philosophy. At the end of the day any narrative is a fabrication, and a travel writer needs to be mindful that suspension, hooks, and all the tricks of a fiction writer are available for use. I think it was when I realised this that travel writing clicked with me.

NWR: Your next project sees you follow the path of the Cortés who, in 1519, travelled through Mexico in the same year the Aztecs believed the world would end. What initially interested you about the area, and did the recent Mayan calendar prediction have any influence?

JH: The Mexican book is a continuation of my interest in the Spanish conquest, which fascinates me because it was the meeting of civilisations who previously knew absolutely nothing about each other. It is a lab test of how we meet other versions of ourselves and find common ground, and of course it isn’t encouraging. Like other animals we compete for resources, and principles, those modern cultural ad-ons, go out of the window. We read of the brutality of conquest, but when you look at how power was exercised in Europe in 1492, both secular and civil, on their own peoples, branding, burning disembowelling, the only surprising thing is that we are surprised at the European’s contempt for the natives they met, or marvel at their ability to categorise a city like Tenochtitlan as the work of savages, while acknowledging it was finer than any city in Spain. They were masters of Orwellian double-think.

The Mayan calendar was not a factor. Their empire, the Classic Maya, had fallen 600 years before the Spanish arrived, although they survived as an ethnic and cultural group. The Mexico of the Aztecs had only trading and cultural relationships with the Mayans whose heartland was down in the Yucatan, that anvil shaped peninsula into the Caribbean, and east into central America. The Aztec calendar had a similar cyclic element. We think of it as odd yet we have the same thing at the scale you could call domestic time: the hours of the day and the days of the week repeat, then the months of the year. The Aztecs, whose calendar did not produce a tidy precise year (we use our leap years to adjust our time to the astronomical facts) also had a period of loose days at the end of each 52-year cycle before the new one began. These were seen as dangerous and ill-omened. The reason that the Aztec scribes assisting the Spanish in their histories began to talk of the return of the god Quetzalcoatl decades later, was that a major event had happened out of the blue, unnoticed by their fortune-telling priests, the omens that should have been observed were written into their cyclic history.

To kick-start a new year cycle, all the lights and fires in the kingdom were extinguished, and a new flame lit in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim, created by ripping out his heart. That flame was carried out by runners, and time began again.

NWR: Do you have your sights on anywhere else?

JH: The idea I currently have is one that came to me while I was writing my first travel book. It was to reverse the process and put my own country under the same inspection. I have an idea about how to approach it differently, as Paul Theroux has done the coastal approach in The Kingdom by the Sea, and Bill Bryson has done his scattergun humour in Notes from a Small Island. But what that idea is will be kept secret, as will how I'll choose what ‘my’ country is.


previous interview: Niall Griffths
next interview: Tristan Hughes


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