Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A Whole Childhood World of Adventure Part Two by Steve Gladwin

Part Two- Battle of the Giants.

Previously on A Whole Childhood World Of Adventure.

I decided to revisit an old childhood favourite, the Hal and Roger Hunt adventures by Willard Price. I wanted to see how they stood up against more modern issues about zoos and conservation. I also decided to read, (finally!) Gerald Durrell's 'My Family And Other Animals', to see how the Hunt boys compared with 10 year old Gerry's very individual approach to the same subject, and for good measure to include modern day adventurer, conservationist and naturalist Steve Backshall's more modern take in his Falcon Chronicles Series.   

There is an old joke about a man going into a pet shop and requesting an unusual pet. Eventually he settles on an octopus, having promised the pet shop owner that he will not let it out of the tank and – should he disobey and can’t get it back in its tank - he promises to phone him for help.
Well of course the inevitable happens and – having soon got bored with a pet that can’t go anywhere, he lets the octopus out of its tank whereupon it flollops off in such a slithery manner that he can’t catch it. Worse still, every time he manages to grab a tentacle to push it back into the tank, another two slither back out. Eventually he has no alternative but to ring the pet shop owner, who turns up very quickly armed with a mallet. What on earth does he intend to do with that? The man soon finds out the answer when the pet shop owner lures the octopus with its favourite food, before whacking it smartly on the head with the mallet. The man then watches in astonishment as the poor octopus, yelling the octopus equivalent of ‘owch’, puts all its tentacles on his head, whereupon  the man from the pet shop sticks it back in the tank.

Giant Cuttlefish from Wikipedia. Roger Hunt lassoed it in Arctic Adventure  (which was probably cheating).

I’ve always loved this joke and was bizarrely reminded of it not just once but twice in Arctic Adventure, the last of Willard Price’s Hal and Roger Hunt series. In the first instance Hal and Roger capture a giant cuttlefish by cornering it in the depths of the icy ocean and Roger casts a lasso over it’s head, tightening it so the tentacles cannot move. Later on Roger also manages to capture a huge sea lion by bopping it on the head with a club every time it comes up for air, thus depriving it of its vital surfacing dives for breath so that it eventually blacks out!

Alas it is certain that there are several less than humane moments in the Hunt boys adventures and I have to say that I have real issues with the finding and feeding of live prey to the bigger animals, even though I can accept that its necessary. I got a really uncomfortable feeling in Amazon Adventure when Hal fed a live manatee to an ananconda, but worse still perhaps are the platitudes about animals being happier in captivity than in the wild. The most outrageous example of this I've read so far is in Arctic Adventure where the captured killer whale should – according to Hal – be positively looking forward to its new life performing tricks to the general public!

I will always love the books for the excitement they gave me in childhood and for Willard Price’s honest attempt to educate children not just about wildlife but humanity and the different ways it can exist together. By far the most interesting sections, (because Willard Price is never gripping) are those which involve the customs of the Inuit, who were called Eskimos in those days, (1980 when the last of the books was written). But the problem with the books – and I’d be interested in whether young people nowadays would pick up on this as much – is that Willard Price seems incapable of building tension. It’s almost as if he – like the Hunt boys – has a shopping list of animals and encounters to get through and therefore can’t spend long on anything. Price was a journalist and foreign correspondent so perhaps he was too accustomed to writing copy to make the transition to novel writing successfully. His villains too are cardboard in the main and you really can’t believe in any peril the boys are in because they’ll either brush it away or – if the peril involves animals – Roger will end up doing his Doctor Doolittle act, rendering it as gentle as a lamb.

No if you want genuine peril with a conservation message then Steve Backshall’s Falcon Chronicles surely fit the bill better. Steve has had a reputation for a number of years as a he-man adventurer chasing some of the world’s most deadly species in – often – some of its least inviting environments. But Steve is far more than a muscle man who wrests slimy or bitey things to the ground while showing off his pecs. One of the things I really like about Steve is that he doesn’t mind saying just how he feels. In Lost Land of the Volcano for example, he goes off with a caving group in a completely new cave system in New Guinea and half way through is struck down with fever. He has no qualms here or at other times, sharing his feelings, telling us he’s scared or in pain or needs to go and change his trousers. He's recently once again gone against his he man reputation with his unashamed blubbing when his fiancee Helen Glover and her rowing partner won Olympic gold.

In a Guardian interview Steve Backshall told us that his favourite childhood reads were Gerald Durrell’s My Family And Other Animals, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and Willard Prices Hunt boy adventures. In the first of the Falcon Chronicles, 'Tiger Wars', Steve goes a long way towards proving himself one of the natural inheritors of Willard Price’s crown. Here there is the same emphasis on culture and wildlife lore and the same message about the industrially sized evil of poaching as Price explored in Safari Adventure, (and which therefore made it such an exciting entry in the series. And crucially Steve provides us with both boy and girl teenage characters to root for who are thrown together by accident and have to survive untold perils. Saker the boy is a member of a mysterious group of teenage boys who have been trained in secret in the forests of Eastern Europe and forgotten their past, performing what almost amount to black opps for an unforgiving master called The Prophet. All of the boys are named after animals, such as Polecat, Bear, Wolf and Margay  (a small wild cat) and Saker’s own handle comes from the Saker hawk. He himself has gone AWOL after an attack of conscience following his shooting of a female tiger before discovering she has orphaned cubs. Sinter’s story is much less complex but in its own way just as deadly. Brought up as a strict Brahmin, she discovers one day to her horror that her father has promised her in an arranged marriage to a tubby doctor in his forties. The crushing disappointment and sense of betrayal makes her question everything that has happened in her life since her mother died and sets her up perfectly for being accidentally kidnapped by a desperate Saker when she runs into him fleeing other members of the gang.

Apart from the sort of wide ranging knowledge and perceptive and humane attitude that you’d expect from someone as well traveled, Steve Backshall does know how to build up tension and although one peril follows another very much in the same frying pan into fire manner of Willard Price’s books, he is thankfully not so much in a hurry to get to the next item on the shopping list. Instead we are given chance to care about the main characters because they are believable and – crucially – we also get to hear the perspective and grey area motivations of the other members of the gang who are chasing them. I'd be happy to read both of the books that follow in The Falcon Chronicles.

Steve and the rest of the team from Lost Land of the Jaguar - courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Long before this, on a magical island far away, the man who so influenced  Steve Backshall, Sir David Attenborough and so many others, was a ten year old discovering many of the jewels of nature in his new back yard. Young Gerry Durrell was the youngest of the Durrell clan which also consisted of his twenty two year old novelist brother Larry, (waspish, completely self -centred and withering in the extreme), his seventeen year old sister Margo, (fey, wispy and completely unprepared for the sometimes harsh realities of life), and brooding eighteen year old brother Leslie, who shoots anything that moves and if you’re a member of his family that might even include you. In addition to the four Durrell siblings there is also their long suffering and absent minded mother Louisa – another accident waiting to happen.

Having finally read My Family and Other Animals, (and why did it take me so long because it is quite wonderful), I’m just a bit sorry that I didn’t do so before watching ITV’s recent dramatization of all three books, The Durrells, with a wonderfully alternatively dazed and frazzled Keeley Hawes as mother and – what appeared to me at least – entirely appropriate casting unless you want Larry to be blonde rather than dark and local taxi driver cum fixer Spiros – very much a Brian Blessed type character in the books - to be actually played by the great man as he was in the first TV adaptation in the 60’s, rather than more accurately by a Greek actor. There is no doubt that Simon Nye adapted his six part version in fairly broad strokes – sort of Family Behaving Badly - but most of the happenings in the book and a good few of the magical moments, were there. Perhaps the saddest and most inevitable absence – were of young Gerry’s wide eyed continuing search to find, study and often capture Corfu’s natural world in all of its infinite variety. Like Steve Backshall’s Tiger Wars, MFAOA has limited dialogue which – more often than not – involves Larry being totally unreasonable while Mother begs him not to be.
Somewhere in the middle Margo witters her various disappointments with men  and Leslie comes in and thrusts a bloodied bag of the unfortunate local wildlife on the kitchen table. The other sections of dialogue tend to involve Gerry’s on-off education and the brave men who try to teach him. The most important of these was the polite and nervous doctor Theo Stephanides, who remained a life-long friend and who is given a special dedication in the introduction.

But I promised you a Battle of the Giants and it's with that dear reader that I must finish. Some of the most hilarious bits of MFAOA come when various creatures are kept in environments which clearly don't suit them, or else create fatal rivalries with other creatures, of which the rather splendid but ultimately tragic battle between the giant gecko Geronimo - who has long been resident in Gerry's bedroom and doesn't respond well to incomers - and the latest incomer, a giant mantid christened Cecil - is a fine example.. If you're of the sort of nervous disposition that doesn't want to be acquainted with the green mantis of Corfu, (still resident) please look away now.

Giant Corfu Mantis. Thanks to arachnoboards.com

It is in too many ways an uneven contest and has an inevitable conclusion. In a freak fall both creatures end up bloodied but unbowed on Gerry's bed.

'Cicely had a wing crushed and torn and one leg bent and useless, while Geronimo had a number of scratches across his back and neck caused by Cicely's front claws.

Eventually a now tail less Geronimo munches down on Cicely's left forearm, and - now weakened - she cannot prevent her head and thorax following suit. It has indeed been - and my cursory description nowhere near does it justice. - an epic battle, and it occurs to me that it is the sort of battle that - for all the effort he might have made with his 'shopping list' style of animal capture - Willard Price was never quite able to describe. It's interesting that Gerald Durrell actually published MFAOA in 1956, barely five years after the first of the Hunt boys adventures, Amazon Adventure, was published, but reading them both now they couldn't be further apart. While one man was setting up one of the first and most important conservation projects in the world at Jersey Zoo, the other - no matter how honourable his intent - was perpetrating all too familiar myths about animals being happy in captivity after being charmed into submission by 14 year old boys. Of course it's fairer to say that Price was more a man of his time, (as were say David Attenborough, the BBC and Zoo Quest - and Gerald Durrell - as he went on to consistently prove - was way ahead of it.  

For all that there's plenty of room for both. However I'll leave the last wise words to Gerald Durrell himself, (and friends)

'But the world is as delicate and complicated as a spider's web. If you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads. We are not just touching the web, we are tearing great holes in it.'






Emma Barnes said...

My Family and Other Animals is a fantastic read - I haven't actually been able to bring myself to watch the TV series because I know I'd be huffing and puffing about every little detail that is different from the book. At the same time, I'm glad they've made the series so as to introduce the story to a new generation.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for taking us with you on your bold explorations, Steve. Some very interesting comparisons and contradictions!

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks both. Emma I do wish I'd read the book first but then I still have the joy of the other two books to come which I with relish. Penny I did have a bit of a change of heart about Willard Price when I'd read a third, (the last book - Arctic Adventure) but they weren't written for me and he's still amazingly enlightened for the times.
It was wonderful to find out what a fascinating and honourable man he was - in his own way quite on a par with both Gerald Durrell and Steve Backshall. I like to think they'd all have got on!