Saturday, 23 July 2016

A Whole Childhood World of Adventure by Steve Gladwin

Several months ago I mentioned the bedroom of my childhood which I had been magically drawn back to while on a psycho-synthesis course in 1998. As well as my thunderbird wallpaper and gaily striped curtains, there were the bookshelves behind my bed, (what if they'd fallen on me one night and brained me!) It would be nice, I thought, to pick one much loved childhood author and use the excuse of this blog to re-visit them. There were so many choices  and they’re only the ones I can remember! Would it be Billy Bunter, the Fat Owl of The Remove of Greyfriars School, who said ‘Yarooh’, several times a chapter and was constantly awaiting the arrival of that fabled postal order. Or maybe another school favourite, Jennings and his friend Derbyshire and their many larks at Linbury Court Preparatory School. I will always remember how Jennings diary entries always ended ‘Weather not so good toddy.’

There were other choices, like the legions of Blytons still lurking on the upper shelves, of which – the ‘of Adventure’ series were always my favourites). Or I could pick Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw, or The Hardy Boys books by Franklin W Dixon. Or there was always Tom Swift?.

Wait a minute! I was missing the most obvious ‘Adventure’ series of all – the Hal and Roger Hunt books by Willard Price which began, (I soon learnt) with Amazon Adventure in 1951 and ended with Arctic Adventure in 1980. But surely - I imagined - the books would be dated and colonial and I’d be wincing at the racism and the gratuitous slaughter or capture of animals by our two he men heroes.They might be zoologists and work for their father - who sent them out to capture animals for the world’s zoos - but there was hardly likely to have been much of a conservation message in the 1950’s.

One of my birthday presents had been a book by one of the great conservationists, Gerald Durrell – a lovely fiftieth anniversary edition of My Family and Other Animals, which I had first seen many years ago in a book club edition on both my parents and grandparents shelves. Surely it would be nice to compare two very different series with very different attitudes to conservation, both of which began in the 1950’s when I was born, (for alas dear reader – I am that old!).

Gerald Durrell and friend

All this sounded well and good as a project, but surely a modern perspective was needed with which to contrast these. So remembering our great love of The Lost Land, (Jaguar/Volcano/Tiger) series and documenting of the efforts of modern day conservation heroes Dr George McGavin, Gordon Buchanan, Justine Evans, Alan Rabinowitz and Steve Backshall, to observe and record wild life in some of the last pristine wildernesses on earth, (Guyana, New Guinea, and Bhutan), maybe I could find a connection here.And hadn't Steve Backshall himself written a series of wildlife adventure books for children, and named Gerald Durrell and Willard Price among his boyhood influences?

Making my own exploration in the slightIy less adventurous lands online I discovered that the first and last Willard Price books have been published in duo form by Red Fox. I obtained not only Amazon Adventure but Diving Adventure, not just Arctic Adventure, (which I didn't even know existed !) but Safari Adventure as well. Adding to my four for the Price of two, (sorry!), I was a copy of Steve’s own first children’s book Tiger Wars, I settled down to read my choices and use them as inspiration for this blog - er two blogs actually, as I’ve spent so long in this one assembling the team they've now nowhere enough time to come and save the village. So gentle reader, pray join me on a two part adventure with some true heroes of wildlife awareness, conservation and above all adventure.

Part One – Hal and Roger Ride Again
I can’t remember much about these books, but there was that one bit with Roger and his cheetah. Happily I managed to meet both in Safari Adventure, which is in one of my BOGOF’s. But we need to begin at the beginning.
Deliberately I decided to read before trying to research anything. I settled down in my attempt to reconnect with my childhood with Amazon Adventure, the first of Willard Price’s fourteen book series. Hal and Roger Hunt are accompanying their animal collector/zoo keeper father on a trip along a little known tributary of the Amazon on a mission to collect animals for the world’s zoos. All too soon the mood turns dark as John Hunt is forced to return home after a telegram from the boy’s mother informs them that his entire animal collection has been set alight by vandals/rivals and everything destroyed. Dad will be ruined unless this latest trip can bring him in a whole host of new collectibles, but he himself has to return home. Can he risk leaving his young 19 year old zookeeper son Hal, and his mischief loving younger brother Roger in charge of the mission? Oh of course he can!

Finding myself deep in the Amazon some hundred pages on, gave me the ideal chance to reappraise my childhood love of these books in the light of my bi-focal adult lenses, (never buy them!). The one criticism I found with the first book was a somewhat cursory approach to the exciting bits. Don’t get me wrong – Willard Price is never boring, but I do feel that he has so much adventure to throw us into that he can let off on the tension a bit. Before you know it, the latest extraordinary action is over hardly before it’s begun. And Hal and Roger’s first adventure is extraordinary. It involves them assembling a whole ark of creatures great and small from pygmy marmoset to rare black jaguar, from vampire bat to giant anteater, (which Roger wrestles!) and from tapir to anaconda with even a mascot shrunken head thrown in. Willard Price never sells the reader short. Not content with having just a boa constrictor as the big snake warm-up to the deadly giant anaconda, he makes it a mother which promptly gives birth to at least sixty babies, These soon become a handy weapon to throw at the villains!

You’d think that this teenage zoo keeper business would too often come over ridiculously far -fetched, ( and now and then it does, such as the rather too Scooby Doo ending/revelation of the poacher Blackbeard in Safari Adventure) but mostly it works. What helps apart from the author’s sheer energy, is his knowledge and attention to detail. In the company of Hal and Roger Hunt you really do learn all you seem to need to know about the teeming varied mass of the world’s wildlife and with Willard Price as a guide you are never short of stories within stories and the sort of survival anecdotes Ray Mears makes whole programmes about nowadays. In one quite phenomenal sequence, Hal, having been abandoned by his native team and then robbed of the animal ark by the villain, who he’s christened Croc, manages to commandeer one of the few floating islands that are actually stable and allow it to take him and a malaria stricken Roger along the river. Then, having failed to find either berries or spear fish, he fashions a tea kettle from a joint of bamboo, tries several methods of fire making including kapok and the rattan fire-thong method, ( no I didn’t know that one either!), before settling on the South Sea islander’s fire plough method where you stand a forked stick in the earth or sand and rub another stick through it vigorously to catch a flame. When he’s rubbed away with no result, Hal suddenly remembers the camera lens in his pocket and finally makes a fire using the old ‘using the awesome power of the sun to nearly set your trousers alight’ method beloved of over grown boys and girls everywhere.

If you think that’s it, you’d be mistaken, for having prepared an improvised fish line for another stab at the old fish game, Hal happily spears a monkey, (obviously not so happily for the monkey but hey they’ve got to eat) and ends up using every bit of it for a whole variety of purposes apart from eating it.

In case you think I’m mocking the writing here, I can assure you that it’s quite the opposite, for instead of the ‘blah blah.Secret plans’ school of children's book of the fifties, the action seems to come directly from the knowledge and sheer animal nous, even if the protagonists may seem a little on the youthful side.

In my next visit with Hal and Roger, Safari Adventure (1966), we are about halfway through the sequence and the Hunt boys are right in the thick of it in a manner which couldn’t contrast more with their Amazonian wanderings. Here, in the fourth in a whole sequence of African adventures, they are no longer collecting animals but dealing with  the problem of poaching, having been brought in by game warden Mark Crosby of Tsavo National Park, to put a stop to the activities of a particularly vicious gang of native poachers and their leader Black Beard. Before Hal and Roger ever get to set off on a mercy mission to emergency re-house a displaced colobus monkey and an okapi, away from the attentions of poachers, they are brought face to face with the harrowingly dreadful results of the poacher’s activities. Here both we and they are made aware of the sheer scale of the mass slaughter and its vast market in the ivory, fur and sundry other sickening trades.  As Hal. Roger and Warden Crosby free or put the trapped hundreds of animals out of their misery, you can’ help both applauding the uncompromising message and giving a shiver of relief that conditions in East Africa and elsewhere in poaching hot spots at least can’t be that bad nowadays.

Old Safari

One of the few criticisms made of Willard Price is that although he mentions the colonisation of native lands, he buys into the traditional tropes of such literature too much. For me this is a small price to pay for a series of books begun at the start of the fifties where native peoples are treated with honour and respect and our heroes follow their ways rather than trying to force their own on them. The only thing anywhere near to racism I have so far encountered is a phrase uttered by one of the villains, who seems clearly to be saying it so that we see just what an ignorant moron he is.

And the reason for this is surely that Willard Price himself appears to have been a fairly extraordinary and entirely honourable man, part journalist, part ground breaking social historian, and later a sort of roving correspondent and adventurer. He himself said of the series.

My aim in writing the Adventure series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior. Judging from the letters I have received from boys and girls around the world, I believe I have helped open to them the worlds of books and natural history.

As for the conservation v zoos element, well the days of my childhood were clearly old fashioned ones in many such respects, when even David Attenborough was doing something similar to Hal and Roger in Zoo Quest. And as a flash forward to Part Two next month, for all the time that young Gerry Durrell spent on Corfu exploring and observing wildlife, he was also a collector and not all of what he collected lived long enough to tell the tale! As for his older brother Leslie, (at 19 exactly the same age as Hal Hunt) he was quite happy, as ITV’s recent adaptation of the books shows, to blast away at anything on sight. Give me the Hunt boys any day.

A newer Amazon

Did I enjoy catching up with these two boyhood heroes? You bet I did, and I can’t wait to tell you about the rest of it either, or to continue re-reading them. And I didn’t even get the chance to tell you about Roger and the cheetah.

Next time on 'A Whole Childhood World of Adventure'

Young Gerry Durrell attempts to referee and awesome contest between a gecko and a gigantic pregnant mantid.

Steve Backshall saves tigers and takes off his shirt (again)

Hal and Roger's last adventure in the arctic.

And if you want to catch up with the Hunt boys in print yourself you'll find them in three red Fox Doubles from Random House.


Sue Purkiss said...

I loved this, Steve! My eldest son was a great Willard Price fan, and the books are still here. (And my grandson's coming tomorrow for a week, so maybe this is the time to see if he likes them too.) I've wondered how they'd stack up nowadays with developing attitudes towards conservation - and colonialism: I'm glad that you've done the research!

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for this, Steve. Hugely enjoyable. I've heard of the Willard Price "adventure" books but never read them, so it's a treat to hear his stories described so enthusiastically and within their context in your post. I'm awaiting Part Two with great interest - or is that an example of the suspense technique you've imbibed from your WP close reading?

Steve Gladwin said...

Ah Penny I have to confess I was brought up on TV which was all cliffhangers and 'don't miss next week's exciting episode'. But be assured there will be a part two. From what I can so far glean Sue I think they stack up pretty well considering and as I say I was expecting otherwise! Anyway I hope your grandson becomes a convert. Thanks both and glad you had s much fun s I did.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Loved your blog and look forward to the next. I never read Willard Price as he was just slightly 'after' my teenage reading years! But I loved Gerald Durrell and am indebted to whoever made the choice of 'The Overloaded Ark' as a setwork book when I was about 14.

What a brilliant read even if I would never come across a gaboon viper in my lifetime. His writing inspired my love of nature in obscure places and my three Oliver Strange high adventure novels set in Botswana, Mozambique and Colombia centreing around frogs, namely the poison dart frog and one of them opening with a boy being swallowed by an anaconda, are probably the result. Unfortunately I could ever get them published here in the UK, only in South Africa.

Look forward to Part 2.

Steve Gladwin said...

I'm really glad you enjoyed it Dianne - thanks. It's a shame about your books because they sound intriguing.