The USS George H. W. Bush is a nuclear-powered vessel. That was one of the few bits of the ship to which I didn’t have access (for understandable reasons) but yes, I should probably have discussed this and quite a few other things as well in the book. There were a wide range of trades on the aircraft carrier – everything from armourers, to cooks and policemen. But if I were press ganged into the navy and I had to follow one profession, it would be as a pilot flying F/A-18s, obviously: at the tip of the spear.
If I had to choose someone as bunkmate for a cruise on the USS George H. W. Bush, I would rather share with five people than one, and would rather share with fifty than five. The key thing is to dilute as much as humanly possible. And I’d much rather share with a woman than a man – not in the hope of some kind of sexual liaison – but because there’s something so horrible about sharing with a man.
My work has always been about place, maybe more specifically still in non-fiction works. It’s often about how history manifests itself as geography, how the temporal makes itself felt in the spatial. In fiction, the transient tends to be preserved, anchored – lent a kind of permanence – in a place (respectively: Brixton, Paris, Venice and Varanasi).
People seem fascinated by industrial archaeology and places like Chernobyl. There is this attraction and I completely share it. It’s partly just a contemporary manifestation of a fascination with ruin and decay going back at least to the romantic age, but also I think it represents the flipside of the constant upgrading of cars, phones, and so on. It’s reassuring to see the sites of manufacturing crumble and fall when we’re all the time being urged to buy the latest shiny, new things produced in such places. I also think it’s satisfying seeing time and nature at work in this way, always ready to make a comeback however ruthlessly we try to contain it. Maybe there’s the Larkin thing as well: ‘beneath it all desire of oblivion runs.’
‘I was constantly surprised by how much people didn’t know. That’s one of the things about travelling, one of the things you learn: many people in the world, even educated ones, don’t know much, and it doesn’t actually matter at all.’ It’s a quote from an earlier book and we actually know less than ever. Why bother learning or remembering anything when you can just look it up on the web? This outsourcing of knowledge – often unreliable outsourcing – is part of the ongoing and serious erosion of our cognitive abilities.
I got a grade ‘A’ in geography A-level. I wish I retained more of what I learned doing geomorphology, or at least I wish I was more able to apply that knowledge to what I’m seeing in the world.
I’m often asked if there are any areas where it would be better to remain interested rather than become an expert, but it’s very satisfying for me to become more knowledgeable in any field. I can’t think of any area where one’s appreciation diminishes as a result of knowing more. I don’t think I’ve ever really properly become an expert in – or at least I’ve never managed to sustain my expertise in – a field that requires a constant diligence and application, over time. That’s something I don’t have. The thrill of discovery is what attracts me.
My next book is another sort of travel book in the vein of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. There are a number of pieces about places in LA, together with various other places I’ve been to, and some linking passages addressing some of the issues I’ve already mentioned before.
When it comes to California, there are three places that have particular resonance for me. San Francisco is the city I’ve most loved, the city where, even now that I’m living in California, I am somehow failing to live in. Venice Beach, where I am living, is the only part of LA where I could live. It’s bliss to cycle down to the tennis courts by the beach, just over the border in neighbouring Santa Monica. I love the landscape of the southwest – Death Valley – and it’s quite incredible to have this incredible bit of it just three hours drive away.
At the moment I’m in South Africa as a Mellon Distinguished Fellow at Wits University in Johannesburg for six weeks. But right now I’m in the Kruger National Park looking out for elephants, giraffes and all this other amazing wildlife: a very worthwhile way of spending one’s time.
1958 Born in Cheltenham
1992 But Beautiful wins the Somerset Maugham Prize
2004 Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It wins WH Smith Best Travel Book Award
2006 The Ongoing Moment, a history of photography, wins the ICP Infinity Award for Writing on Photography
2009 Wins GQ Writer of the Year Award
2013 Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine