Interview: Benedict Allen Essay, Research Paper
A walk in the crocodile’s shoesExplorers who make a living by writing about their expeditions know that it takes two journeys to make a book: the physical slog is followed by its recreation in literary form. And the second can be even more perilous than the first. Benedict Allen wasn’t quite as green as the rainforest when he decided, at 22, to beat a path alone from the Orinoco to the Amazon. After all, he’d got BSc in environmental science, and a doctorate in self-possession. But by the time the flora and fauna and the ethnic tribes were through with him, he also had dysentery and malaria, and depression and doubt in double doses. But it was the tribe he wanted to join back home that gave him the toughest time of all. “Too big for his jungle boots,” huffed worthies at the Royal Geographical Society, at 1 Kensington Gore, SW7. Maybe they didn’t like the first whiff of young Allen they got from a tale in a tabloid paper of how, starving, he ate his dog – kidneys and liver first. Or perhaps it was that the title of his book – Mad White Giant – was gung-ho, when it should have been more respectful of the Victorian tradition of exploring that they assumed was his model. It didn’t occur to some of the pith-heads at the RGS that Allen might have been mocking himself – there is over two gangly yards of him; and his clumsiness through the trip-root, creeper-noosed foliage made him the despair of his shoeless guides, who were fleeter than people wearing Air Jordans. “I appeared from nowhere, having done this big journey as someone nobody really knew,” he reflects, almost 20 years on, in his eyrie in Shepherd’s Bush. “I had been in the Daily Mail as the man who ate his dog to survive. They didn’t like the whole Indiana Jones element, I was an adventurer; an upstart. But it’s the unfairness with which they judged, and prejudged, that hurt.” There was a spat about authenticity with Dr James Hemming, director of the RGS, whose portals he didn’t darken for a while – but one of whose pillars he has now become. “I was seething,” he says. So much so that his mother feared he would stomp off on a dangerously challenging trip, just to prove his critics wrong. Even now, with a cache of books and TV series chronicling his lone adventuring, from voodoo in Haiti to crocodile cults in New Guinea, it rankles with Allen to be reminded that some didn’t believe he had covered so much terrain so quickly by foot and by canoe. So much so that the author’s note in the first edition (1985) that says “I have been at pains to omit more than fleeting anthropological, ecological and geographical references” is supplemented in the new paperback with a warning to pedantic readers that if “cultural and geographical blunders scream out at you”, remember this was a young guy “launching out into an exotic world which he didn’t, and couldn’t understand”. Allen says that, even on that trip, he realised that what would be required back home, if he was to be accepted by the experts, would be a “careful, detailed record of such a fiendishly long trek”. He admits now that he was naive; that he was “messed up” by the hardships. But he wasn’t the romantic soul some made him out to be. From the first, he set a goal for his exploration; and scrupulously made notes (and comic doodles), but some on that venture were lost when his canoe was capsized by the dog which became several dinners. Early on, too, he began to build the idea of a different kind of adventuring: “It was a bit naive, but I thought that if the locals don’t need money, and I could lock into their system, I wouldn’t be held back by the problems of trying to keep in contact with the outside world. I’d also be free from the mental baggage. “All [my] expeditions became a bid to leave as much of the west behind as possible.” Unlike other equipment-laden explorers, he, a solo voyager, had the chance to glimpse obscure cults and customs. “To me, it’s a question of going back to people who’ve been bypassed and entering their world.” In New Guinea, he says he sought out members of a tribal crocodile cult who eventually permitted him to take part in their initiation rites [described in Into the Crocodile’s Nest ]. In spite of contact with the outside world, the tribe keeps up the ceremony, but now it usefulness to them is “as a map of the mind. It’s how they use the crocodile as a role model in the forest.” Each remote little community, he says, offers a “little window in how to see and interpret life; and I am trying to get through that window.” But he’d stumbled on something else, too, although he didn’t realise it till he began writing Mad White Giant back home – a new subgenre of travel writing. Bruce Chatwin had discovered (or rediscovered) it, by adding an imaginative component to his journeys; but Allen says his tales from the tangled woods are to be read as poetic accounts of what happened to him. There’s a lot of personal information in that first book. Now, “pretty well all the great physical journeys have been done” by someone or other. But Allen is still outward-bound, and less than half as old as Wilfred Thesiger. “Now is an era of idea,” he says, so though his next book will be about the Amazon, it won’t be a conventional account of it as an eco-system, a green hell, or a paradise, but as a fabulous river of the imagination. “I’d like to work out what it really is: maybe it’s an unanswerable question; maybe it’s a little bit of everyone.” · The author will be reading at the Royal Geographic Society on February 18. Call 020-7591 3100 for details.
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