Posts Tagged ‘Robin Hanbury-Tenison’

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

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Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s new book ‘The Land of Eagles’ in August 2009 Bookdealer magazine

August 26, 2009

Breughelesque farmers in Byronic landscapes

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s ‘The Land of Eagles: Riding through Europe’s Forgotten Country’

The trouble with the Balkans, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, is they create more history than they can consume. And while, as with so many of the old Bulldog’s more epigrammatic sayings, this may on the surface appear to make sense, it’s also an expression with hidden shallows. Certainly, the geographical region we now call Albania (or more likely ‘plucky little Albania’) has had more than its fair share of invasions, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political upheaval over the centuries, largely because of its situation on the political fault-line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. But paradoxically, from the 21st century perspective at least, As Robin Hanbury-Tenison points out in his superb Land of Eagles, it is also one of the most dormant, remote and traditional countries in a fast-changing Europe that has apparently forgotten all about it.

Obscured by communism and locked away behind ramparts of impassable mountains, Albania may have been overlooked economically and may well lack what we today call development. But it has long and constantly attracted the literary and cultural traveller.

As Hanbury-Tenison points out, Albania is awash with literary and cultural references. Shakespeare set Twelfth Night in Illyria, an ancient region of the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic coast that is modern Albania. In Così fan tutte Mozart casts his two scheming lovers as ‘Albanian Noblemen’. Edward Gibbon describes Albania as ‘a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America’. And of course Byron set his lengthy narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Albania, the country the romantic poet rode through with his friend John Cam Hobhouse in 1809. Edward Lear swung into the saddle to ride across the landscape, a journey ultimately expressed in his 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. Noted Victorian traveller Edith Durham, often described as the first woman war correspondent and a great enthusiast for the Albanian people, also rode through the mountains before publishing her epic book High Albania. For the record, Hanbury-Tenison comments that up in the high mountain passes of the north ‘these are the woods where Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter books goes to lie low after being defeated. We could see why, as they felt quite divorced from the rest of the world.’

Hanbury-Tenison is a renowned and veteran horseman, and he likes to do his travelling on horseback. A few years ago I interviewed him for the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, and he told me that ‘on foot with a pack you see nothing but your feet. In a car you are insulated from the real world. But on a horse, you have an intelligent animal doing all of the work and most of the thinking, leaving you free to look and listen, to communicate with those you meet.’ These could so easily be the words of the explorer’s hero and mentor, Wilfred Thesiger, and in emulating the great desert traveller Hanbury-Tenison is preserving something of a noble tradition that sees exploring as being about discovering things rather than breaking records. And it’s a formula that has obviously worked and stood the test of time, with Hanbury-Tenison previously riding through and writing about China, Spain, New Zealand and France.

And now Albania. Although the real question is probably ‘why Albania?’ Why not, the author seems to imply, recounting a story of how he first met the Crown Prince Leka of Albania at Sandhurst. The prince had been on a military exercise with the explorer’s son and was covered with mud. He clicked the heels of his boots together in the manner of a Prussian officer before announcing: ‘You will always be welcome in my country.’ Hanbury-Tenison took him at face value and in 2007 he and his wife Louella went on an expedition along the length of the country from Theth in the north to Erind in the south. The result is Land of Eagles, a good old-fashioned travel book, and the sort that would win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award if it were still going. It’s got just the right balance of travelogue and digression, contrasting a gruelling expedition journal with riveting trivia and occasionally complex political history. One minute Hanbury-Tenison will breezily relate an anecdote about how Norman Wisdom became a national hero, while the next he’ll describe the Balkan Peace Park Project, an initiative where an environmentally protected area is set aside to unite communities and encourage tourism into a war-torn region. This appeals to the environmentalist in Hanbury-Tenison who explains in some depth how substantial chunks of Southern Montenegro and western Kosovo have been joined to the Albanian section, making a total area of 3,000 square kilometres… ‘The fact that this just happens to be the most beguiling and least known corner of Europe makes it a winner.’

Although Hanbury-Tenison’s knowledge of the region is impressive, both historically and culturally, he’s at his best when he’s in the saddle on the open road, which is quite often little more than the narrowest of tracks, often with a precipice one side and a cliff the other. He makes no secret that it is a hard journey: some of the mountain passes and suspension bridges would be terrifying to a man half his age, but now in his seventies Hanbury-Tenison occasionally allows himself to admit just how onerous the task is. To make matters worse the tracks that he uses are dismally signposted in a land without map or seemingly reliable guides. But for all his frustrations he is boyishly optimistic and genuinely enchanted by the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. In a sentence that could only have been written by Hanbury-Tenison he describes ‘the bucolic charm of Breughelesque farmers, who belong to the Byronic landscape so perfectly.’

Robin Hanbury-Tenison has always been an intensely busy man. Download his CV from his website and you will read what you’d be forgiven for thinking is a description of several action-packed lives. Of course he’s best known as an explorer – having lead or taken part in more than 30 expeditions – in which capacity he’s brought to the wider public the plight of the tribal peoples of the world as well as the rainforest. He’s also been named by the Sunday Times in 1982 as ‘the greatest explorer of the past 20 years’, and again in 1991 as one of the 1000 ‘Makers of the 20th Century’. He deserves to be much better known as an author and perhaps with the publication of Land of Eagles this slight injustice is about to be put right.

The Land of Eagles is published by I B Tauris, HB, £19.99 · ISBN 978-1845118556

For more information about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit http://www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

‘Shortcut for the armchair traveller’ feature article in Times Higher Education Supplement by Nick Smith

April 27, 2009

Researching a feature on Ernest Shackleton earlier today I came across an article I wrote about print on demand in 2006 for the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Shortcut for the Armchair traveller

Nick Smith unearths a publisher who can supply rare or out-of-print travel books at the click of a mouse

As you read this, someone somewhere is tearing out their hair.

This person is a biographer of the early 20th-century explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the cause of all this frustration and despair is the difficulty of getting hold of a first edition of the great man’s book Aurora . You could try a copyright library, or you could go to a book fair in New York, where for $100,000 (£54,000) a dealer will be only too pleased to track down one of the five or six copies that are circulating in the commercial world of antiquarian book collecting.

But imagine that you could, at the click of your mouse, order the printed text or even a facsimile of the first edition of Aurora , neatly bound and delivered to your door within 24 hours for under £20.

Now imagine that virtually any out-of-print, rare or collectible travel book could be accessed that way. Enter CuChullaine O’Reilly, who describes himself as a “literary archaeologist”. He is one half of the US-based husband-and-wife publishing team that will bring Aurora to the masses.

Their Classic Travel Book company will publish it on demand, book by book, so that not a single copy will be pulped. The process will ensure that researchers and academics – who are among the O’Reillys’ main customers – will be granted unprecedented access to valuable primary source material at an affordable price.

Many great 19th and 20th-century travel texts are out of print, and mainstream publishers cannot or will not do anything about it. The problem in the past has always been lack of a large market for such books. But, argues O’Reilly, most books serve a limited market. More than half of those published in the UK sell fewer than 250 copies a year, so the traditional publishers’ objection that “the book won’t sell” simply doesn’t hold water.

“It just doesn’t make sense that so much great literature is out of print,” he says. He believes that the combination of herd mentality and lack of vision in publishing is the main reason for bookshops being awash with works of “polished mediocrity”.

According to a study commissioned by the British Library, 90 per cent of newly published work will soon be available digitally. O’Reilly thinks this might help to “ensure that financial considerations are no longer the sole motivating factor in publishing and library sciences”.

The Classic Travel Book company was born of the O’Reillys’ love of long-distance equestrian travel. They are the original Long Riders, founders of an international guild of horsemen dedicated to the traditions and philosophy of geographical exploration on horseback. The Long Riders’ Guild is also dedicated to the preservation of equestrian literature, for which there is a limited market. The guild established a publishing arm that was gradually overtaken by the more generalist Classic Travel Book imprint, which has more than 200 titles on its growing list. It contains works from long-forgotten explorers such as John Duncan and George Younghusband, as well as the less famous works of big names such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf and, of course, Shackleton.

“Any book selling fewer than 500 copies a year is a good candidate for making available on demand,” says Suzanne Wilson-Higgins, commercial director of Lightning Source, a Milton Keynes-based company specialising in printing, binding and distributing on-demand books.

And while their traditional clients are academic, professional and scientific publishers, business is increasingly coming from specialist trade publishers and imprints such as The Classic Travel Book company. They have also brought into print a wide spectrum of what Wilson-Higgins calls “non-traditional” publishers. These include old-fashioned vanity self-publishers as well as database publishers, the so-called “content aggregators” who source digital collections of books or even scan out-of-copyright titles, rework the covers and sell them (quite legally) over the web. As Wilson-Higgins says: “No warehouse, no stock, less risk.”

And no waste. “To fell forests and then pulp books is not a responsible act,” O’Reilly says. “Our mission to preserve rare and important travel knowledge is tempered by the realisation of our ecological duties as publishers.” He believes he has a moral duty to share the profits he makes with the academic institutions, scholarly societies and charities associated with travel writers, past and present, featured on the Classic Travel Book list. For example, he is working with author Glynn Christian – the profits from Christian’s book will help create a community library on remote Pitcairn Island.

Mike Berry, an independent antiquarian bookseller and owner of Somerset-based Rare Books and Berry, believes print-on-demand will enhance his traditional business. “I can supply books to customers where previously the rarity and cost made this impossible, so the reader wins. It will not affect the sale of first editions, as this is a collectors’ market,” he says.

Berry thinks that collectors will even go for print-to-order books. “I am happy to make these available – people want to use bookshops as well as the web.”

The reader may be considered the winner in all this, but the writer is not doing too badly either. Robin Hanbury-Tenison, described by The Sunday Times as “one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century”, has more than a dozen of his books on the Classic Travel Book list and sells them via his website.

Hanbury-Tenison, who, as editor of The Oxford Book of Exploration , is no stranger to traditional publishing, decided his most recent book, Worlds within: Reflections in the Sand , should go straight to the on-demand format. “It’s the second instalment of my autobiography and doesn’t have the wider appeal of some of my earlier books. It was a book I just wanted to write, and I didn’t want to get stuck into the process of lengthy meetings with publishers and so on. I just sent off the manuscript, and in ten days I had a copy of the book in my hands.”

LIFE IN THE SADDLE

Before you get 100 pages into CuChullaine O’Reilly’s 600-plus page novel Khyber Knights , the protagonist is being tortured in a prison cell in Pakistan. It is a terrible scene where two men are held in separate rooms and forced to listen to the other’s sufferings while their assailants try unsuccessfully to beat a confession out of them with cricket bats. They are accused of being in possession of a large amount of heroin.

Basha, O’Reilly’s wife, says the book is based on her husband’s real-life experiences. “Every word you read is true. A few names have been changed here and there, but that was basically what happened.”

O’Reilly is known for his journeys through Pakistan, which form the source material for Khyber Knights , widely held to be the best and most authentic book on the country written in English.

Basha O’Reilly is the other half of the publishing partnership behind Classic Travel Books and the Long Riders’ Guild website, described by the O’Reillys as “part-museum, bookstore, tack room and Guild Hall” and as containing “the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel information”. She is known in equestrian circles for her ride from Russia to the UK and as author of children’s book Count Pompeii – Stallion of the Steppes , first in the Little Long Rider series.

Long riders do just that. They ride long distances. They are a tight-knit, though far-scattered, community whose significance lies in the quality of their literary output.

The O’Reillys plan to circumnavigate the world on horseback, a feat never before accomplished.

Details: www.thelongridersguild.com/

Nick Smith is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book Awards