When I was young I wanted to see the world. I wanted to explore the unexplored, find hidden cities and lost tribes (never once thinking that these tribes were unlikely to have counted themselves lost), uncover ancient treasures and discover species new to science.
I pored over the literature I had access to at the time (in those distant pre-internet days), whether my parents’ ample collection of books, my own burgeoning supply, or the library (school or otherwise). I would read fictional tales of these adventures: Willard Price, Arthur Conan Doyle, Johann Wyss, Daniel Defoe, R.M. Ballantyne or Gerald Durrell being just some of the authors I admired and devoured. I would also work my way through the non-fiction selection, again including tales of real life explorers and, especially, works about the natural world — particular favourites being David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell (again – The Amateur Naturalist is a book I returned to, and still do, over and over).
After we had moved north to Orkney, on our own adventure, I began to learn of other real-life adventurers — the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Rae, the whalers, and the explorers who would stop in to take on water, supplies and men at Stromness, before leaving to cross the Atlantic, or sail towards far seas.
Rae was a famous son of Orkney, savaged in his lifetime by believing the word of the native peoples of the far north of Canada when they told him the starving survivors of Franklin’s expedition of 1846, to uncover the North West passage, had eventually resorted to cannibalism. Franklin’s widow famously enlisted none other than a certain Charles Dickens to destroy Rae’s reputation, paint him as ignorant and foolish for believing the word of the Inuit. In just one quote from a large selection indicative of the imperial racist ways of time, Dickens would write “We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel…” Rae would finally be proven correct — but not until 1997. (Apologies for the slight tangent here — it irks that a true explorer, a good man who respected the native peoples he encountered, earning their respect along the way, would be besmirched by an establishment deeply steeped in institutionalised racism. Yes, I know it was a long time ago, but still…!)
As I have already mentioned in my “In the Wild” section of this site, I longed to head to the deep jungles of the Amazon. At that time dense tropical forest seemed to me to be the epitome of unexplored — uncharted wilderness, harbouring who knows what? As I grew older I began to look at other environments too, study them in more depth — the great boreal forests of the world, the Arctic, mountains, deserts or the vast savannahs. I realised I was beginning to lose my particular blinkered childhood attachment to the jungles and instead to spread my interest amongst every environment on earth. I cast my net wide and read all I could ensnare.
Then, at some point, I realised I was just as interested in people and our own journey as a species as I was the natural world we inhabit. I began to study current and ancient civilisations, current and ancient hunter-gatherers and everything in between. I eventually developed a particular interest in the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic of western Europe, but also in those tribes still practising an ancient way of life — the Evenki of Siberia, for example. I would (and still do) stand in front of a museum cabinet, looking at the detail and method of stitching on dusty clothing, or the exact way in which an arrow has been fletched, both collected at the height of empire and brought back as curios, items to wow Victorian ladies and gentlemen and their starched, Sunday-best offspring.
I cannot remember when I started to pay attention to the myths and legends of other places, but it was a long time ago. I swiftly added to my love of those I first encountered, those of the Greeks and Romans, with tales from the sagas and Beowulf. I sought out better, older, longer, versions of those favourites read to me before I could recognise a word — Grimm’s tales or those of Olde England, for example. Scottish mythopoeia and, especially, Orcadian folklore, were soon added to these. I recognised early on there are common themes, common roots and where differences reflected regional geographical peculiarities. Finding a new — ancient — story is still thrilling to me. And there are so many I have not heard.
I listen to people. I love sitting and absorbing all the human life around me, working out stories, trying to see the real people behind their outward façade. I love the cities, especially those where there are high proportions of international residents from all corners of the globe, whether living there or passing through. This is one reason that Edinburgh remains my favourite city on these islands. I also have soft spots for Amsterdam, Paris and, especially, Madrid.
All these things — all the reading, the observing, the listening and deducing — they are what make me tick. They are fed into my writing, whether here on this blog or elsewhere, fiction or otherwise. They are me.
That nagging sense of wanting to explore the globe, see great and different cultures, marvel at the intricacies, circles and cycles of nature, eat foods alien to my palate (or those I love and want to discover nestling amongst their home culture), hear the songs of a thousand different and unknown (to me) birds, or see our own summer migrants in their winter homes, finally visit those ancient ruins and those “lost” tribes — this sense — the sense of wonder — has never left me.
At the time of writing, October 2015, I have visited four countries, five if you include my home nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which is a ridiculous mouthful — and it is no secret that Scotland is the closest to a home I believe I have). And I know, for me, that number is not enough.
This is an introductory piece to a series of posts dedicated to explaining my coming plans, to sharing with you what I intend to do to remedy this situation and, crucially, to help clarify ideas and the possibilities in my own head.
When I last made a huge decision, leaving my job in Sheffield and heading out to the wilderness, it only became real when I started to talk about it with people. That is what I am going to do here — make dreams and ideas start to feel real.
In five hundred and fifty-five days I will awake to my fortieth birthday. This seems as good a date as any to set as a deadline, as a target, and to say to myself (and you, the reader), where will I wake on this date? What nation shall my eyes gaze upon when they open that morning? Barring events beyond my control, I intend for it not to be the U.K.