Imagination fired by a picture of his father outside an Arctic shed, artist and writer Dan Richards sets off in search of places that ‘allow mankind a foothold in otherwise inhospitable terrain’. Icelandic ‘houses of joy’, fire-watching belvederes, a Mars-research training facility, an offshore lighthouse: Richards hankers after the ‘astringent’ and ‘spartan’ architectures of fixtures built ‘where nature takes over’.
Ranulph Fiennes he is not, however. Slightly harried, somewhat clumsy (he smashes his phone before he even gets to Iceland), terribly enthusiastic, the tone of Outpost is part adventure/travelogue, part live-in art project. He has a tendency to the poetic phrase, and is extremely generous towards artistic sensibilities (not all readers will be convinced by the Turner Prize-winning shed-made-into-a-boat-then-into-a-shed-again chapter), but he avoids the pitfalls of a lot of earnest and/or politically-motivated nature writing. And while he name-checks the usual suspects such as Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin and Wendell Berry, he is by inclination, one feels, more likely to refer to Werner Herzog movies, or Björk.
The end result is like a more-upbeat Geoff Dyer, written in engaging and thoughtful prose – literally: he narrates his thoughts sometimes – with occasional mock-ingenuousness, and cheerful punning. He has a nicely self-deflating sense of humour (the Arctic shed, he notes, is just that: a common-or-garden shed, noteworthy only for the fact that it’s in Svalbard). He’s also not afraid of detours or anticlimaxes, and is creditably shy of being seen to ‘retrofit significance’.
It would be wrong to suggest Outpost is more about the journeys than the destinations – but Richards’ real talent is in people-watching. One of his outposts is in fact a writers’ retreat in Switzerland, in which he concludes that few of us, honestly, do our best work in isolation. And just how viable is that sort of lonely travel, these days? ‘How far was far enough to truly be remote’?
Fittingly, he never makes it to Ny-Ålesund, whither his father went: it is protected now. Jack Kerouac wrote that ‘no man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness’. To this Richards adds the imperative of ‘making guardians of consumers’ in our besieged environment.
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