Friday, October 24, 2008

An Interview with Nicholas Crane

On Wednesday night I went to another event at the Chester Literary Festival: an evening with Nicholas Crane. It was in one of the university's largest lecture halls, and it was packed. The talk was very interesting; towards the beginning he showed us funny outtakes from his TV programmes (presenting geographical programmes is clearly a somewhat perilous occupation), and he also gave us an overview of Great British Journeys and some of the rest of his experiences.

He ended with a summary of what a few of the Great British Explorers thought of Chester. Although Gerald of Wales seemed to appreciate the city, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe did not, and both seemed to abhor the old-fashioned timber structures above the warehouses, which are still in place. By the twentieth century, however, these were called 'The Rows' and were beginning to be admired by people such as H. V. Morton.

After the event there was a long queue for the book signing, and I added CLEAR WATERS RISING to my collection because I liked Great British Journeys so much (I have written about it here and here).

After I had read the book I asked Nick Crane (through the kind offices of the agent Juliet Pickering) if he would answer a few questions and he very kindly agreed. (I did submit these to the local newspaper, together with a photo from Nick's publisher, Orion, but disappointingly they did not have enough space.)


Nick Crane is the presenter of the BBC TV programmes Coast, Mapman and Great British Journeys, and is an award-winning writer and journalist. In 1992-3 he walked alone for eighteen months along the entire mountain watershed of Europe, depicting this epic adventure in Clear Waters Rising. His next book, Two Degrees West, was published to great acclaim in 1999 and was an account of a walk down Britain's Central Meridian. In 2002 he published Mercaptor: The Man who mapped the Planet, which is a biography of the world's first modern scientific cartographer, the sixteenth century Gerald Mercaptor.


CD: Out of the eight explorers in this book which one did you identify with the most?
NC: Probably Gerald of Wales, I think. It struck me that he had a twinkle in his eye, and this is apparent on the page in that he knew how to tell a story, like a medieval Bill Bryson - he had the perfect mix of digression and anecdote. He established a template for travel writing - long before travel writing became an established genre. He was an original.

CD: Which one did you most admire?
NC: Thomas Pennant, when he went off to explore the western islands of Scotland, in terms of courage and nerve, he was a kind of Scott of the Antarctica of British exploration. He went off into uncharted waters, and he got ship-wrecked, he didn't think twice about climbing unclassified mountains just to get a good view. Then he did this great trek through what we now know as Rothiemurchus Forest. I admired him enormously. He also had compassion. He went there as a scientist collecting data, but he came back as a humanitarian. It takes quite a lot of courage, open-mindedness and self-awareness to alter the purpose of an expedition as it happens.

The one I admired the most as an individual was Celia Fiennes because she set off on her journeys for purely personal reasons and to amuse herself. It was only after I'd researched her that I realised she had a secret agenda - to ride her horse through every single English county, but was so modest, she never mentioned once that that was what she was trying to achieve. I admired her enormously that long before tourism she set off to acquaint herself with every single English town. She was dedicated to self-education through travel. She was motivated entirely by curiosity and had no hidden agenda, and even though she went through lots of terrifying incidents she made nothing of them.

CD: Did you have a favourite walk or part of a walk?
NC: Yes, lots: walking out to the basaltic columns at Briis-mhawl near Talisker in Skye, climbing and filming in Snowdonia, and filming on the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, where the view was fantastic. The best walk was following Thomas Pennant's route from Dundonnell to Kinlochewe, and piecing together exactly where he'd been.

CD: What was the most dramatic change you noticed between the landscape in the past and now?
NC: Industry, roads, the site of William Cobbett's farm is now Kensington High Street Tube Station - that's a dramatic change. In Norfolk, where I spent a lot of time filming, which used to be the epicentre of exciting things, are now sleepy silted-up little villages which were once teeming ports, and would have been crammed with ships - but have only a few small boats today.

CD: I've been reading about scientists and writers having eureka moments and many of them recommend walking as a way of having one! Have you ever had a great revelatory moment when out walking on your own?
NC: I have a lots of thoughts when out walking - for instance which book to write next, and which TV series I'd most like to do. There's something about walking which is slightly hypnotic, and I think the rhythm of moving legs and arms allows one to drift off into a state where connections are made in a non-linear way. That is, for me, where the most exciting ideas come from. Maybe there's a reason for this; maybe we're hard-wired , back in the days when we were nomads, to come up with solutions when we're moving from one place to the next - that would make sense. Also I think there's a level of decisiveness with walking as well, it's not enough just to have the idea, you've got to have the motivation and the decision-making ability too - and walking in itself is quite a decisive process.

CD: How did you go about retracing the explorer's steps for the TV - how did you sleep and eat for instance?
NC: We have about eleven days to make a one hour film and because filming is a fairly elaborate process it means moving on every day to another hotel or a highland lodge, or a hostel - anywhere that can provide accommodation in the right place. In 'Britannia', which I've just finished filming , we had a sequence in the Cairngorms, which meant doing a two-day trek carrying a tent, and slept, and filmed, at three thousand feet on the Cairngorm Plateau, It is a big adventure to travel with all this film equipment on our backs. We make out filming as low carbon as possible so we don't use helicopters unless we have to.

CD: Is there a philosophy behind what you do?
NC: I like surprising people, and getting a new generation excited about this island, waking people up to the wonders, and the idea that it is a highly dynamic landscape that is always changing. It is a way of showing that the temperature rise of the last six hundred years will change the landscape enormously, but if we do the right thing, the next generation will be able to go on enjoying it.

General Questions.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
NC: Not that I'm aware. I have eaten them, though!

CD: What is your proudest moment?
NC: Seeing my children succeed.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event?
NC: Yes, quite a few - getting married, having children, reaching Istanbul after setting off from Spain eighteen months earlier and crossing the continent of Europe, seeing my biography on Mercator being reviewed by Dr Lisa Jardine - that was a big moment; watching the second episode of COAST hit 5 million viewers. I've been very fortunate - having big adventures means that I've had several life-changing moments.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
NC: The notorious curve of the graph showing the rise in CO2 concentration due to the industrial revolution.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
NC: 100% vision.

CD: What is happiness?
NC: Being forgiven.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
NC: I tend to leap into the day, if I'm at home I walk my children to school, if I'm on a film shoot I hurl myself into the shower.

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