Tomorrow's Books: Book Reviews


Sara Wheeler

A well-known explorer once told me that he and his fellows could be divided into two categories. There were those who thrived in hot climates but could not abide the idea of a frozen waste, and those who cheerfully negotiated Siberian steppes but went mad in the tropics. The contents of this diverse book suggest otherwise. Though Sara Wheeler is probably best known for her writings on the Arctic, she strides out undaunted through Chile, India, Malawi, Albania and many countries in between. The quality of her writing is not dependent, however, on an exotic locale: an especially enjoyable piece is entitled ‘Reading the Argos Catalogue in Bed’.
     The book is divided into five parts. It begins with her solo journeys, moves on to portraits of the travel writers and explorers she admires, and ends with reports from the home front (learning how to wing-walk and belly-dance –  though not at the same time) and expeditions with her young family. It is not an anthology for dipping into: Wheeler shepherds us from one piece to another with careful interlinking passages and postscripts. The most substantial and entertaining of these considers V.S. Naipaul’s difficult relationship with the world in general and Paul Theroux in particular. ‘As is often the case,’ Wheeler writes, ‘one sees how good he is all the more clearly when one notices how bad he can be’.
     In Wheeler’s eyes, a brilliant prose style makes up for many – but not all – human failings. The hero with feet of clay is a recurrent theme. Bruce Chatwin ‘put a torch to the imagination’ in his stories, but was affected, cruel and deceitful; Wilfred Thesiger and Norman Lewis were both guilty of ‘exaggeration and embellishment’, while H. M. Stanley’s accounts of his African journeys ‘bulged with lies’.
     There is, nevertheless, real heroism here, and it is of an old-fashioned kind which exalts the spirit of human endeavour rather than the modern Guinness Book of Records approach to exploration. Wheeler quotes Roald Amundsen’s verdict on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition: ‘Do not let it be said that Shackleton has failed…No man fails who sets an example of high courage, of unbroken resolution, of unshrinking endurance.’
     Wheeler herself belongs to the school of Edmund Hillary, who insisted that he was ‘a person of modest abilities’. Despite having camped out in the Antarctic and travelled the length of Chile alone, she dismisses as ‘absurd’ suggestions that she has shown bravery, contrasting herself with the climber Paul Pritchard, who sipped sweetened condensed milk through a tube while dangling from rockfaces: ‘I like neat dulche de leche too, but I spoon it direct from the jar into my mouth while standing barefoot in the kitchen.’
     There is a good deal of humour in the book, which goes some way to explaining her resilience. She is above all a mistress of the deadpan sign-off, as in this paragraph on her Albanian journey:
     ‘The proprietor of the small hotel in Dhérmi had promised fresh fish for supper. And indeed it was fresh. He dynamited it out of the water 30 feet out in the small cove in front of the hotel. I was swimming in the cove at the time. A flake of spent dynamite landed on my head.’
     In serious mode, she writes memorably and shockingly about a visit to Solovki, the freezing archipelago whose Orthodox monastery became a prison camp after the Russian Revolution. A flight of 365 steps built by the monks as an act of devotion was used to torture the inmates, who were tied to logs and rolled down it, ‘their bodies bouncing on the frozen wooden treads’.  Wheeler remarks to Anna, her guide, that ‘One generation destroys what the previous ones created’. Anna will have none of it. ‘But they didn’t destroy it,’ she retorts fiercely. ‘The spirit lives.’
     Widely though the book’s compass swings, it ultimately gravitates towards the colder regions. Shackleton, his navigator Worsley, Hillary, Nansen, Amundsen, Apsely Cherry-Garrard – these are the brightest stars in Wheeler’s pantheon, and among her own adventures it is the polar ones that stand out. Her essays on igloo living and on eating in the Antarctic are modern classics. Bedding down in a sleeping bag full of equipment which cannot be allowed to freeze is ‘like sleeping in a cutlery drawer’; the story of a companion being surprised by a seal why relieving himself through a hole in the ice will be told until the permafrost melts away.
     Wheeler emphasises travel as a metaphor for life, and a thread of wistfulness runs through Access All Areas as she looks back on journeys undertaken in her youth. Movingly, she concludes a mock obituary of herself by writing of her love for her brain-damaged brother Mathew: ‘she always felt that she had to run fast enough for two.’ Her admirers will feel that she has run fast enough for all of us.