Monday, July 25, 2005

Selling to the Meeedjia - Thor Heyerdal, Edmund Hillary, and The "Story" thing

[extracts from a rant fired off to a film producer who, reasonably enough, wanted to know why I was going]

It's a funny one, this. The "WHY?" question is the one everybody ask - friends, relatives, journalists, and proposal-mauling folk such as your good self.... (I mean that in a positive sense.)

Sometimes I think it's "Why?" in the sense of "I seriously want to know what it is that gets into your head or your heart or your soul and makes you want to do a thing like this".

And sometimes I think it's "Why?" in the sense of "What story can you tell that justifies this expedition in terms of the prevailing social interpretation of worthiness?"

I'll give you my take on this -- you may not like it, but here is what I think.

A lot of expeditions pick a story to hang their ride on, either because they think in advance -- probably rightly -- that it will play better in the mediasphere; or because, belatedly, some journo/producer/PR jock has told them to.

So you get all these "In the footsteps of...", "Retracing the ancient....", "Could Alexander the Great have come this way?", "The sweet and sour trail: eating Chinese from Shanghai to Shoreditch, BY BIKE" type of themed expeditions. (OK, actually I quite like that last idea.)

89.5 % (forgive my rough estimate) of these things are phoney. The participants know it, the intermediaries (journalists/producers etc) know it, and I think the audience knows it too, most of the time. It's pretty obvious, most of the time, that these adventurers don't really give much of a damn about their meeeedjia-friendly theme: they are really doing what they are doing because they want do something out of their skins, to go hard and dirty, to hurt like hell and achieve whatever it may be, climbing Everest or pogo-sticking across Antarctica. If they have to tell everyone that they're pogo-sticking in Shackleton's footsteps in order to get financing or recognition, well, so be it.

How often have you watched or listened to or read about this kind of journey, and you think to yourself: OK, I know the game here: it's a hell of an adventure, it's exciting, I'm hooked, good luck to these guys, bloody-hell-rather-them-than-me (or: cor, I wish I was there), but, really, what has Marco Polo got to do with this? When he came through town I'll bet he didn't have to trot past 15 miles of white-tiled ribbon-development garages and cement factories, and no, I don't suppose he was choking on black smoke from the constant stream of Dong Feng trucks either. Marco Polo was then; now is now.

There are some honourable exceptions of course. Thor Heyerdal and Kon Tiki, that kind of made sense because he had to have some reason for making his rafts out of whatever it was he made them out of, stone-age Polynesian coconut matting or whatever. But even then, you pretty much knew that at bottom those guys were having an incredible adventure, the Polynesian migration (or whatever it was) theory was a pretty neat hook to hang it on, but let's be honest it doesn't really much matter whether the theory was right or wrong, it was a hell of a journey.

>From time to time you get a real expert on ancient Mongolian drainage ditches, and I mean a real expert, someone who lives and breathes ancient Mongolian drainage ditches, someone who knows ancient Mongolian drainage ditches better than the ancient Mongolians did. For him, the 3000 mile camel trek across the desert is almost incidental to the prize at the end of it, to explore a drainage ditch that no-one has ever explored before. His passion for drainage ditches is obvious and he can talk authoritatively about the subject like no-one else can. He hasn't read the books because he wrote all the damn books, for heaven's sake.

But he is a rare bird.

Most "themed" expeditions that find their way into books/newspapers/films don't have this kind of expert. Maybe the leader has read a thin paperback on Afghan tribal dancing before he set off, but we all know why he is really homping over the Hindu Kush.

Because it's there.
For me, Edmund Hillary's "Because It's There" line is one of the most abused quotes in expedition history. Read it the wrong way, and it sounds like a casual, lazy-witty, now-leave-me-alone-you-pesky-little-base-camp-hugging-media-types sort of off-the-cuff remark from a tired guy who just climbed quite a high mountain and wants to lie down for a while. But I think it's not that at all.

To a mountaineer, a mountain is like a blazing beacon, a huge neon-lit challenge in the sky that screams (or whispers, menacingly, or seductively), Come on, climb me, you bastard, if you're good enough. The mountain gets into the mountaineer's soul. It messes up the survival instinct that evolution has done its best to hone, and replaces it with a kind of obsessive-compulsive mania: I must climb that bloody mountain, and honestly I don't really care three hoots if it's the 90th anniversary of Mallory and Irving or even that today is European Anti-Littering Day. I need to climb that thing because it's there, because it is commanding me to climb it, because my soul won't rest until I have climbed it, because that is who I am, that mountain has become me, and I have become it.
I'm being a little presumptuous to put all these word's into Hillary's mouth, I know, but I'd take a bet anyway that he wouldn't disagree. "Because it's there" is the real reason that drives most adventure-expeditioners, even if they feel they have to say something else to please the meeedjia, sponsors, and maybe even their own (misguided) consciences.

A story well told is a story told with passion, and when you're only three-quarter-hearted about ceremonial megalithic urinals in Ghastlistan (are they of Etruscan origin?), it shows -- even if everybody (even the audience, because it helps them feel more high-brow and less voyeuristic) is trying to pretend that it doesn't.

I could make up a good story as to why it is historically or culturally or educationally essential, or vital to the interests of world peace, that I ride a bicycle from Shanghai to Shoreditch (I might ditch Exeter because nothing in China alliterates with it; oh, now you've got me going, if you can't find a valid humanistic or intellectual peg, try a verbal one, Shanghai to Shangri-La -- that would be nice, actually, the perfect contrast between a sea-level urban-industrial cosmopolitan-consumerist skycraperland nightmare and an ascetic little dream-world of peace, karma and yak-dung high up in the mountains; and, as it happens, they've just officially re-named a little Yunnanese town in the Himalayas "Shangri-La" (I kid you not -- look it up: it was called Zhongdian until a year or two ago)) -- anyway, I was going to say, I could make up a story about why I'm going, or I could tell you the truth: because it's there.  I'm not a mountaineer, I'm a map-gazer: big blank empty spaces; jumbled piles of contours; roads in places where you ask yourself, not just how the hell did they build a road up there, but why the hell?; long lines from A to B; - these are the things that call out to me, saying, "Ride me!", just as Everest bellowed "Climb me!" into Hillary's lug-hole.





  1. Hate to be pedantic, but wasn't it George Mallory who said the famous "Because it's there" line?

    The London Review of Books ran a brilliant essay by Murray Sayle about Everest climbers in 1998, called 'The vulgarity of success' - it's partly about the fact that Brits like heroic failures. (I've just had a look for it, but they appear to have taken it off their website.)

    If I remember rightly, Mallory was partway through a mammoth tour of the US to promote his planned expedition to Everest. Every night he invited questions after his speech, and every night without fail someone in the audience asked him why he wanted to climb the world's highest peak. Throughout the tour he stuck to his very worthy explanation about the endless good it would do for discovery, science and the Empire - until one night he got fed up with the question and gave the brusque three-word answer that has come to speak for all modern adventurers.

    But speaking on behalf of the media, I don't think there's anything too wrong with having a story - it helps to make sense of what you're doing. I agree that the subtleties of motivation are often lost when they are translated into a newspaper article, but that's not to say it's not worth trying to explain your reasons in full to journalists. Occasionally we might just get the point.

    In many ways a "story", however tenuous, is more interesting than yet another ridiculous "record" attempt to become the first person to cross Antartica on a pogo-stick while wearing a blindfold.

    Although, having said that, I love the tale of the man who decided he was going to set a new record by making the first journey from John O'Groats to Land's End pushing a pea with his nose. He gave up after about a mile because his nose hurt.

  2. Sam, you are of course quite right.

    Attributing that quote to Edmund Hillary was merely a test to see if anyone was paying attention.


    A blogger much less scrupulous than me would go and edit my original post, and then delete Sam's comment.

    But I am only slightly less scrupulous than me, so I won't. Instead, I'll just try to keep a low profile for a while and hope that this whole embarrassing affair has blown over by the time I get back to England.

    Keep up the good work, Scooper Sam. Now there's a fact-checking proper journo for you. Hey, if I was the editor of the Grauniad, I'd hire you.

  3. As for the pea-pushing man, I don't think you should be giving him the oxygen of publicity, really.

    I mean, if everybody gave up in life because of a sore nose, or the occupational equivalent in their particular calling, where would we all be?

    Stacked up in great heaps in Land's End and John O'Groats, that's where, with a gaping empty space called "Britain" in between.

    Come on man, pull your self together and get pushing. I'm sure Vaseline will sponsor you if necessary.