And a conclusion: If you only buy one book in 2023, make it this one.
I hope I’m not alone in my annual habit of buying myself the occasional Christmas present, wrapping it up, and labeling it “with love from the dogs–we tried not to slobber on it” or “from the sheep–thanks for the hay!” or “affectionately, the cats–please try to do better with the litterbox next year.”
I think, perhaps, it’s just one of those things one does, as one ages** and as the gifting aspect of Christmas becomes less about the joy of opening one’s own presents, and (hopefully) more about the joy others–especially the young–feel in seeing one do so.
All the way back in June 2022, I read a Telegraph article about a forthcoming book by now-retired British Army Colonel John Blashford-Snell (I realize that with a name like that, identifying him as “British” is probably redundant, but I just want to be clear), recounting his “Life of Exploration and Adventure.” The book was not due for publication for several more months, but I pre-ordered it anyway, and–early in December–it finally arrived.
I duly wrapped it up and forgot about it.
It’s now officially part of my library, and allowable to read it. I’ve finished only the first chapter, but I am utterly charmed.
As the daughter of Gagara Yasin, and the author of many posts here on my father’s unlikely, but all completely true, stories of his adventures in the British Colonial Service in the Northern Nigeria of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, I have a pretty high bar when it comes to tales of adventuring and exploration. There are those who measure up, some of whom I’ve never met–most notably Patrick Leigh Fermor and Rose Macaulay–and those I’ve met, if only glancingly or briefly, like Gerald Durrell. Then there are those who–both at a distance and in real life–turn out to be disappointments, either because they’re tediously unreadable and self-involved like Elizabeth Gilbert or Sir Percy Wyn-Harris*** (the man who–while climbing Everest in 1933–discovered an ice ax believed to belong to either Mallory or Irvine, from the ill-fated expedition of 1924. What a story! Amirite? He went on to his own very successful career in the British Colonial Service in West Africa, but–somehow–never rose beyond his decades-old story, and never managed to win Dad’s trust. That’s good enough for me.) And then there are the nameless poseurs, men I’ve known who claim to have had such interesting lives, but who never actually deliver much of the goods to share their experiences with others. (I do believe that while “trouble shared is trouble halved,” the sharing of good and instructive experience can exponentially enrich those who learn about it. Otherwise, on both counts, what exactly is the point of our common humanity and our ability to share things at all?)
But I digress.
I’ve read the first chapter of Blashford-Snell’s From Utmost East to Utmost West: My Life of Exploration and Adventure. And–it’s like going on an adventure with Dad!
From his respect for ‘native’ culture and those who come in peace to exemplify it, to his rather peremptory ways of dealing with those who don’t, no matter whose side they are on; to his impatience with civil service, pointy-headed bureaucrats; from his evident humanity and humor to his sometimes–we might think–foolhardy bravery and loyalty to his men; and for his excellence in writing to convey his principles, his love of his fellow men, and his generosity, even-handedness, and–dare I say it–embrace of the wide-ranging diversity of humanity on this our planet, I could be, once more, walking with my father.
I can’t think of any higher praise I could bestow. (Hint: Stop looking. There isn’t any.)
Here’s what the back of the book has to say about it:
For over 60 years, Colonel John Blashford-Snell has undertaken expeditions across the globe, forging paths through deserts, mountains and jungles, breaking barriers and setting records. Here, for the first time, is his comprehensive account of those incredible decades.
Featuring cameos from a wealth of celebrities and royalty–from Sean Connery to Emperor Haile Selassie–the author’s adventures are both hair-raising and heart-warming, as he dodges gunfire from bandits on the Ethiopian Blue Nile, leads the first-ever vehicle crossing of the Darien Gap in Panama and Colombia, searches for the elusive ‘king elephant’ in Nepal and even delivers a grand piano to a remote tribe in Guyana.
I can’t wait to continue my adventure. For that is what the best travel writers do–with enormous generosity of spirit, they make their adventure one’s own. And thus, as Mr. She once wrote, in a much more local context, and in his encomium to his favorite nun,
…she disappeared into the audience, and a curious thing happened.
We found that the people in the hall, through their laughter and applause, could zero the distance between themselves and the awkward boys and the shy young girls winning each other on the stage, as we enjoyed the community that Sister Janet, and we, and they, were creating together.
Since then, the communities which we created, and still create, have grown beyond the precincts of the mills and those antiquated schools which nurtured our affections and our aspirations.
And yet, sometimes I think I still hear the amusement and applause zeroing the distance between us, even though she, and all her dedicated sisters, vanished into the audience long ago.
John Blashford-Snell “zeros the distance” between us and the objects of his exploration. An unfashionable concept in this woke century, but one which is–at its root–the most inclusively human of all ideas.
Please buy this book.
**One of the advantages of this is the diminution of short-term memory, so if you get the timing right, you can acquire the gift, wrap it up, and then–by the time the day comes–you’ve forgotten what you bought yourself, so it’s a lovely surprise all over again. (Please do trust me on this.)
***LOL. I’ve slept in his bed. He wasn’t in it at the time, of course.