As a kid, I climbed a lot of trees and built a lot of dens in the countryside round Bath and Bristol where my family settled. My father’s parents were horticulturalists, and he had been involved with Outward Bound and mountaineering since his teens. My mother’s dad had spent his life in the Travelling Post Office and was full of harum-scarum tales of trains and his time as a motorcycle messenger during the war. So stories of travel and the natural world, the idea that the Earth was out there to be discovered, enthused me from the earliest age.
A few weeks before I was born, my father returned from an expedition to Svalbard – bearing the pelvis of a polar bear. When I was nine months old the family upped sticks to the Greek island of Spetses, where my father helped to build a replica of Jason (of the Argonauts)’s ship The Argo, with Tim Severin. That was just the sort of thing that happened.
The bear pelvis lived in the study in each of our houses throughout my childhood: less trophy, more alien artefact. It looked so pure, supernaturally white, heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures: all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. To hold it was to think of my father as a young man in that great white silence, imagine polar bears, and feel my horizons expand.
I really began thinking about far-flung human outposts while writing my last book, Climbing Days. There was a fair bit of mountaineering involved and so I ended up staying in various cabins and bunkhouses above the snow line.
The thought occurred that these brilliantly odd bivouacs and bothies were unknown to the general population, hidden in the wilds, so I began to research where the farthest such places were, the most interesting outliers at the end of the world – be they desert shebangs, fire-watching belvederes, lighthouses, remote temples, or research stations.
The sæluhús shelters of Iceland were a particularly eccentric delight. Working with Stefán Jökull Jakobsson of Ferðafélag Íslands, I helped renovate a lodge named Hvítárnes, built in 1930 on the shore of a glacial lake. The Vikings raised sæluhús (‘houses of joy’) to enable them to cross Iceland’s tundric interior, an idea which began to be resurrected in the mid-20th Century. Today, sæluhús #5 to #9, for example, chart a curve around the belly of the Langjökull glacier, while #29 to #34 allow long-distance trekking beyond the Vatnajökull icecap. Today, Stefán oversees a motley collection of shelters, ranging from big timber barns to tiny chambers akin to boshed-together pigeon lofts.
My approach to travel writing has a strong anthropological bent. The chance meetings, conversations, setbacks and tangents, so often turn out to be the interesting bits. The night I met a black bear in my tent; a drunken exchange with a Norwegian guide about the best way for dealing with a bumptious walrus; a mid-air conversation with an in-house lawyer about how North Korean nuclear capability looms large in Amazon’s plans to build their HQ far from the west coast – such interactions are key to the shape of my books.
I also try to furnish my books with as much poetry, art, music and literature as possible. My favourite writers are those who can’t be pigeonholed. Horatio Clare, Jan Morris, Rebecca Solnit, and JA Baker have taken me on journeys into strange lands both far and close at hand. Richard Brautigan, Bob Dylan, Joan Didion, David Bowie, Max Porter, TS Eliot, Denis Johnson, Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald are a never-ending source of indelible images.
But ‘bad in life, good in the book’ – that’s my motto. Readers like a writer to suffer. Get monstered hitch-hiking through a desert in Utah; become so drenched tramping across the Cairngorms that you start to grow gills; have your boat bitten in half by a hippopotamus – people seem to love that stuff, or so I’ve found!
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!