If there’s one thing I enjoy more than writing it’s reading. I’ve been spending some time lately considering my most important writing influences. This post takes the form of a summary of the pieces of writing that have influenced me most. It is written ‘from the hip’. I have not re-read anything before writing. My remarks are based on what remains with me years after reading. Perhaps this is the best measures of the quality of a piece of writing, its longevity, its enduring impact. This is not really a top ten, more like the selected highlights of twenty years of reading presented in chronological order.
Different writers impress me for different reasons. For some it is what they wrote, the subjects they covered. For others it their presence as narrator, their insight and opinion, the stories from their lives. Sometimes is the ideas that crystallised in my own mind while reading their work. Or even the writing methods employed by the writer.
The personal narrative style, written in the first person has always attracted me. The best writing gives a real sense of what it felt like to be in that place in that time. this requires an eye for detail, an ability to pick out those features that distinguish the moment from the past and will distinguish it from the present. These can be hard to spot due to their ubiquity, they are the omnipresent items that we mean to photograph throughout our trip but somehow return home empty handed, decorated Indian lorries or tuk tuks, or prayer wheels. Or even the neon lights of long rows of fast food outlets in the USA. Such observations are most effective when they match those of the reader, doubly so when they bring to mind a similar observation that the reader had misplaced.
I chose to study the ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, Steinbeck’s tale of dispossessed farmers escaping the dustbowl of the depression era Midwest in search of better times in California, for Higher English. The book made a vivid impression on me for two reasons. Firstly, I had previously thought that thought that novels were first and foremost made up, works of imagination. But it was clear from Steinbeck’s depth of connection with his subject that he had lived through these times, had seen these people and places with his own eyes. Secondly it taught me empathy, for it described a refugee crisis that involved people like me.
I fought my way through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance during my second year at university and later re-read it, finding the going easier second time round. My flatmate had been gifted a copy by his sister, who wrote inside the front cover ‘this book will change your life’. The story of the book’s creation is unusual and inspiring. Pirsig spent 4 years writing the book, during half of which he maintained his day job writing computer manuals. He would rise early, write from 0200 until 0600 then go out to do a day’s work. The book is many things in one; an attempt to reconcile the scientific and romantic world views and in doing so to provide an antidote to the existential angst so common in late 20th Century life; an introduction to and history of philosophy and metaphysics; the story of the narrator’s past life as Phaedrus, a college lecturer who became so obsessed with the concept of ‘Quality’ that he suffered a severe breakdown and was subjected to electro-convulsive therapy. But it is first and foremost the story of a motorcycle journey undertaken by the narrator across America, from Minneapolis to San Francisco. What sticks with me almost 20 years later is the structure of the book, that of a philosophical journey within a physical journey. Did it change my life? Probably not, but the cautionary take of Phaedrus made me desist from dwelling excessively on the big questions. It also helped to cement a conviction – as yet unfulfilled – that I would one day write a book employing the journey-within-a-journey template.
Over the years I have read almost all of Theroux’s travel books, but, curiously, none of his novels. I am a great admirer of his economical prose and of his insights. Because his method is transparent and accessible he is the one writer whose style I have consciously imitated. His formula – groundbreaking when he first deployed it in 1975 – was simply to embark on a lengthy railway journey and to write down more or less everything that happened to him. Part of his charm is that he invariably became grumpier as his journeys progressed. Indeed it its this grumpiness and the insights they give to his character that make his books enjoyable. However to a degree he presented a fictionalised version of himself. In the Great Railway Bazaar he makes no mention of the stress his decision to leave his young family had placed on his marriage, it is only three decades later, when he undertook a similar journey (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) that he reveals to the reader that his wife had begged him not to go, had taken a lover in his absence and that in making his career he undid his relationship.
In 1996 I visited a guesthouse book swap in the small town of Chang Khong on the border between Thailand and Laos. I wanted words and plenty of them to keep me occupied during the slowboat journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, so was delighted to come across a collection of Mark Twain’s, as thick as my arm and written in 7 point font on tracing paper. This book made me realise what writing is for, a time capsule in which a place and time may be preserved for the benefit of later readers. Two pieces in particular have endured. ‘Life on the Mississippi’, the story of Twain’s apprenticeship as a river boat pilot, and his reminiscences of his time in a militia group during the Civil war, in which he and his associated skulked around, studiously avoiding any contact with the enemy until they came upon a lone soldier who they shot, more or less in cold blood. The experience sickened them and they returned home shortly afterwards. This must be the experience of a great many soldiers. Another line which stuck indelibly in my mind is one from Huckleberry Finn. Having escaped an explosion on a paddle boat, Huck was asked if anyone had been hurt in the explosion. “No Ma’am,” he replied. “But it killed a nigger”. Twain was a prominent abolitionist and that carefully chosen line, that he either overheard or could have overheard, captured perfectly the racist times in which he lived.
The unorthodox structure of two of Bruce Chatwin’s books make them stand out. The first is In Patagonia, a book with which I have had a serendipitous relationship. A short time after being attracted to this book in a second hand bookshop in Oxford I found myself actually in Patagonia, in the view of the Fitzroy massif that graced the book’s cover, having secured a place on a scientific exchange funded by the British Council in Buenos Aires. Chatwin had an uncle who lived in Patagonia through whom he had obtained from a cave near Punta Arenas a scrap of skin belonging to an extinct giant sloth, the Mylodon. The book details Chatwin’s travels in Patagonia in search of the story of the sloth and of his uncle and along the way he paints a vivid picture of the region and of its inhabitants.
The second is The Songlines, in which he describes his travels in the red centre of Australia, where he learnt of Aboriginal mythology and used these as a frame on which to hang his own ideas about the origin of human restlessness. On first reading I took both books to be a travel books littered with autobiographical details, but on reading his biography I discovered that he objected to the travel writing label. He is quoted as saying “The borderline between fiction and non-fiction is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers.” The biography makes it clear that, though much of his writing was modified reportage describing encounters on his journeys, he fictionalised where necessary, particularly when it came to his own part in the story. He often put himself at the centre of others’ stories. He regarded both works as novels, but if you change the names and slightly re-jig the details of your travel journals do they change into a novel? I don’t think so, but they do cease to be a true account, they begin to transcend the journey itself and become instead a work of art, of imagination.
The detail that most impressed me about Chatwin was just how long it took him to get onto his stroke as a writer. In Patagonia was published in 1974 when he was 37. His creative processes also took some considerable time to operate. He spent three years in his early thirties trying to write a book about nomads in but this material didn’t get into print until the publication of the Songlines in 1987.
I bought a used copy of ‘On the Road’ in Phnom Phen in 2002 and read most of it in the relaxing atmosphere of Guesthouse No.9’s floating deck, watching lily flowers bobbing on Beoung Kak Lake. The lake and the backpacker culture it supported is no more, drained, infilled and developed. It all emphasises that when we travel we move through time as well as space. Ten years ago chilling at No 9 seemed such a generic travel experience, something we all did and something that people had been doing for years before us. The passage of time has revealed that experience to be finite and more precious than any one of us could have realised. The America described in Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is now to be found nowhere but within its pages. At the time I read it I had recently become a convert to nightclubbing. What resonated with me most was that his description of behop jazz could have been my own description of deep house, or that of countless millennia of my ancestors on hearing the music of their day, human experience being constant within shifting contexts.
In essence ‘On The Road’ is a simple, autobiographical book, describing a series of journeys hedonistic journeys from coast to coast across the USA, but it was the product of a torturous creative process that lasted for many years. Kerouac experimented with various novel formats before deciding to simply write it all in a down as it happened in a simple linear narrative. In preparation he taped 120 feet of paper together into a scroll which he fed into his typewriter. He wrote the entire manuscript over three amphetamine fuelled weeks. I was as captivated by his method as by the result.
Crouch is an alpinist who documented his adventures in Patagonia in ‘Enduring Patagonia’. Over the years I’ve read a good proportion of the literature of expeditions and mountaineering and have more or less exhausted the thirst that I once had for the genre. I first became tired of early expedition literature, full of fictionalised characters hiding behind stiff upper lip and a serious scientific purpose. For me ‘Enduring Patagonia’ is the classic of the genre. It paints a vivid picture of a region that I love, of a man and of a philosophy of living life to the full. He describes the long periods of festering, of waiting for the weather to clear, that are an integral part of Patagonian alpinism. It is written with a disarming honesty, for example he admits that some mornings he hoped that the would remain unsettled, providing a valid excuse not to test himself against the mountain.
Jamie is primarily a poet, though she has published two unusual and interesting books of essays that have been classified as new nature writing. It is travel writing on a local scale. Life being what it is, we cannot all shoot off to Patagonia for six months to gather material as Chatwin did. Jamie shows that a weekend trip, or even an afternoon’s stroll can provide a framework within which to explore the world and oneself. It seems that she goes on an outing with a notebook, or dictaphone and records not only what she sees but her experience of it, how it feels and the thoughts and reminiscences that it provokes. In interview she has said of these essays “I don’t want to categorise them, I just want to write them. But sometimes I do wonder – what are these things?”
Whatever they are, I like them, and I am delighted that Jamie has shown there to be an audience for this type of material.
In Arctic Dreams Lopez wove history and hard science between beautiful first person narrative to create a thorough description of the Arctic; its geography and its natural and social history. To read this book is to begin to absorb a lifetime’s knowledge, to learn his way of seeing, to appreciate the great beauty of the upper latitudes. We are blind to much of the wonder of the natural world. The beauty of great nature writing is that it can open our eyes to this unseen splendour and provide us with the vocabulary needed to describe phenomena which might otherwise pass us by. To give an example, Lopez describes how reflection and refraction of light by ice or water particles in the polar sky can give rise to a variety of arcs and halos. The most spectacular is the sun dog, rainbow patches that appear 22 degrees from the polar sun. Such features can also be observed in the part of the sky directly opposite the sun. They are not limited to the polar regions, also being observable in the temperate latitudes. Thus primed I soon saw my first solar arc while descending from Cul Mor in Assynt. It was in the sky to the north, directly opposite the late afternoon sun. It would have been easy to miss this subtle effect had Lopez’s book not opened my eyes. This summer, with the Arctic sea ice at record low levels, it seems more than ever that Arctic Dreams may prove to be a eulogy to way this awe inspiring region used to be.
Maxwell is most famous for his ‘Ring of Bright Water’ trilogy in which he describes his life living with a series of otters at Sandaig, near to Glenelg on the west coast of Scotland. He brought his first otter back from his travels among the marsh arabs of Iraq and his writing chronicles his life with the otters, the joy that they brought to him. They enhanced his already keen naturalist’s eye. The otters’ unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour brought many misadventures and maintaining otter accommodation in such a remote location caused him much expense and inconvenience, particularly as he preferred to combine a metropolitan literary existence alongside his otter fancying. His biography was written by his friend and employee Richard Frere and it revealed to me many aspects of his life. Most notable when read at a distance of several decades is the chain-smoking alcoholism and perpetual drink driving, much less normal now than it was at the time. He didn’t achieve literary success until quite late in life, he was 38 when his first book, describing his unsuccessful shark hunting business, was published, and 46 by the time ‘Ring of Bright water’ came out. Second he wrote wrote directly from experience, to the extent that he sought out enterprises such as a scheme to farm eider down primarily as a source of material for a future book rather than through any real belief that to would prove to be profitable. To an extent, his was a life lived as art, though no doubt he embellished and sculpted his real life experiences, tailoring them such the side of his character that he presented matched his own self image.
So there you have it, my top ten writing influences. Those who narrowly missed the cut include Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Edward Abbey, Herman Melville and W.H. Murray.