Context: Read this the lovely warm conservatory overlooking our friends’ garden in Flackwell Heath.
Benedict Allen would, these days, have his own TV series and have put a number of others out of business. While Bear Grylls seems to shun community and forage and fend for himself, Allen’s life work has been to make himself dependent on the communities he visits to survive. I like this idea of travel and that’s why we often hitchhike and couchsurf when we travel. By making yourself vulnerable to the people you travel amongst, he reasons, you remove barriers and allow them to open up to you. It’s a mutual process of self-discovery for both host and guest. It’s a good thing to bear in mind as we prepare to leave the UK for Papua New Guinea on Tuesday.
The only thing I don’t understand though, is why he’s spent his life doing this kind of thing in Amazonia, New Guinea, Siberia and Alaska. Isn’t this method of travel just as valid wherever you go? It seems a bit cliched to call yourself an “explorer” and then confine yourself so narrowly. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but there’s something quite keenly colonial about the term “explorer” as if nomadic groups who learned to live off the land somehow weren’t explorers in their own right centuries before we came along with our porters trailing along behind us.
Anyway… the book was disappointing. It wasn’t just the content matter that I found wanting but the very premise of it all in fact. There’s no doubt that he attempted participant observation that was as minimally invasive as it could be, but I’m not really sure what the point was. If he’d done it to learn about himself and the cultures he visited, fine. But to write about it and then go on to make films and write countless other books seems not a million miles from the rest of us profiting from what we take from these cultures in material terms.
In Papua New Guinea this is a particular problem because, in many societies there that are materially minimalist, one of the most precious possessions is knowledge itself. By taking part in the secret crocodile cult initiation, Allen was invited to share in the real wealth of the community. The act of writing this up into a book to share with the entire world is something I’m not sure the community, if they could understand what he’d done at the time, would not consider plunder. This would perhaps be reinforced if they could see the material benefits that Allen has reaped by doing this, especially if considered against the benefits they probably haven’t received as a result.
Let me lay the whole premise of the book aside if I can… the story begins in Irian Jaya actually where Allen fails to realise his plan to spend time with a particularly isolated group. This then provides him with the opportuntity to travel over to PNG and then integrate himself into the Niowra community who allow him to be initiated. I found the writing really disjointed once he got into the Niowra village. It certainly wasn’t as engaging or descriptive as the anthropologies and ethnographies that I’ve read and I think this may be a combination of his lack of expertise in this area and the audience he’s writing for. Bit of a shame really.
So, all in all, it didn’t grab me and left me feeling a bit disconcerted about the premise of his journey. Not great.