The Guardian has a past history of publishing smug opinion pieces taking a swipe at adventurous people for experiencing the occasional piece of misfortune in the course of their interesting lives.
For example, after the 2014 Everest tragedy, when 16 Sherpas lost their lives in a catastrophic avalanche, the Guardian reacted by publishing an article by a journalist called Tanya Gold who, as far as I could tell, had never been near a mountain in her life, but had read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. This spiteful piece described mountaineers who attempt to climb Everest as blithe cretins. Its many petty criticisms included – and I’m not kidding – an objection to our use of the word summit as a verb rather than a noun, which was considered evidence of illiteracy.
Last year it published an article by a journalist called Brigid Delaney in response to the two Indian police officers (or former police officers, as they now are) who faked their Everest summit photos. Instead of viewing this as a story about two people lying about their summit ascent, Brigid chose to reach a broader conclusion – that climbing mountains is egotistical, and of no value to humanity (an opinion she is entitled to, though why the Guardian feels it warrants a full article is more puzzling).
So when the 57-year-old explorer Benedict Allen went missing in the jungles of Papua New Guinea earlier this month, and was subsequently rescued after his family became concerned about his safety, it was no surprise when the Guardian published an article by some smug intellectual with no adventurous pedigree, which reached a wildly spurious conclusion about his adventurous life. What was more surprising was how their readers reacted.
Benedict Allen has been a professional adventurer for many years now, since long before social media made professional adventuring more visible (adventurer, explorer; potato, tomato; whatever). Like all professional adventurers, he needs publicity to help him earn a living. He’s had his own TV shows, he’s written books, and he does a lot of public speaking. I’m not massively familiar with his travels, but I did go to a talk of his at an adventure travel show once, where he talked about his travels in increasingly hostile environments: the Amazon rainforest, the Sahara desert, and the Canadian Arctic.
He’s been around the block a few times, had a few adventures, got into some scrapes, and found a way out again. He was fairly matter-of-fact about his adventures; I don’t remember him as someone who exaggerated to make his travels sound more dramatic than they were. He just described them plainly for the benefit of those of us who have never been there. He also happens to be white, and quite posh, but I don’t hold that against him.
Earlier this year he went into the jungles of Papua New Guinea in search of a native tribe he had met 30 years ago. He took no means of communication with him, because he wanted no contact with the outside world. He knew it was dangerous, but he was experienced. He took a calculated risk. You can argue that he should have taken a satellite phone; you can understand why he chose not to.
He got malaria, became delirious, and lost his bearings. When he missed his flight home, his family became worried and instigated a search for him. He was located at an airstrip in a remote part of jungle by a rescue helicopter. He was trying to hitch a ride out again. He argued that he didn’t need rescuing, because he would eventually have found his way back, but he accepted a ride in the helicopter; after all, his family had gone to the trouble.
Big deal. Good luck to Benedict. He usually gets back safely, but sometimes things don’t go to plan. It’s in the nature of what he does. Cue the Guardian.
The Guardian’s latest effort to take a swipe at modern adventure is titled The white man’s blunders of ‘explorer’ Benedict Allen feed racist myths. Note, the word ‘explorer’ is in quotes, indicating that the journalist doesn’t consider him to be an explorer (I could put the word ‘journalist’ in quotes too, indicating that I believe they need to do more research). Later on the name ‘Great Britain’ is used in quotes too. Note also the headline that, apparently without a hint of irony, accuses Benedict Allen of being a racist while simultaneously making reference to his colour.
The article goes on to claim that Benedict’s journey ‘reinforced Great British narratives of black savagery’ (that’s a direct quote of course – I would never say anything that poncey). To translate this into plain English for you, if I understand it correctly the writer is suggesting that a white man travelling to Papua New Guinea to visit a primitive tribe in the jungle reinforces the stereotype (mine presumably, and yours too if you happen to be white and British) that all black people are savages.
The article makes numerous references to Benedict’s colour (which is of course white), and Britain’s colonial history (our colonial history had some unfortunate consequences which still have ripples today). It’s not clear whether the writer would have found the journey acceptable if Benedict wasn’t white, or British, but they later criticise him for leaving his family behind, so it seems probable they also object to his age, and perhaps the adventure taking place at all.
There are numerous literary references to books that not everyone will have read, or even heard of. In that respect the writer makes the classic mistake in an opinion piece, of making their readers feel stupid. Here’s an example:
Think Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, or The Mosquito Coast from Paul Theroux, both of which end in the failure of the white man to effect any change on the local population.
I’ve not read Paul Theroux’s novel The Mosquito Coast, but I’ve read some of his non-fiction travel books, including The Happy Isles of Oceania, in which he travels to various Pacific islands, where the people have a different skin colour and are less well educated (I’m not going to use the words primitive, because it means different things to different people). Paul Theroux is also a white man (though happily not British), so in some respects he was a bit like Benedict Allen too.
The article was written by a journalist called Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, who admits to having travelled to Peru on a school trip when she was 17. From other references in her piece it seems that she is still in her early 20s. It is likely that she had never heard of Benedict Allen before she learned of his disappearance this month. She describes his journey at the age of 57 as a ‘mid-life crisis’ (he’s been doing these things for most of his adult life) and questions whether he had considered the effect such a journey would have on his family, whether the native tribe would welcome him, or whether he would bring diseases with him (you can be sure he thought long and hard about all of these things).
I know this is going to sound patronising, but you can’t learn everything from books alone; some things come only by experience. I wrote very naive things in my 20s too. Luckily they weren’t published in the Guardian for all to see. My main gripe is with the Guardian for allowing the article to be published without a major rewrite, rethink, and re-evaluation of Benedict Allen’s motives, born out of a greater understanding of his life. I don’t want to be too hard on the journalist then. In any case, Guardian readers carried out that job for me.
I approached the comments section with trepidation. Had this been the Daily Mail, there would have been a stream of unmoderated filth, oozing with envy for Benedict Allen’s adventurous life, calling for him to be neutered, shot or hanged from the gallows (this is hypothetical of course – the Daily Mail would never publish an article defending ethnic minorities, however misguided).
I need not have worried. Guardian readers are cut from a different cloth. Almost all of them supported Benedict Allen, and accused the writer of being a racist instead. Some of them even picked up on her use of the English language. And in fairness to the Guardian and their moderating team, many comments had been deleted because they didn’t meet guidelines, but there are many comments remaining that make the Guardian look stupid for publishing such a silly article.
In this blog I will continue to stand up for adventure for its own sake, taken in whatever style the traveller prefers. Benedict Allen prefers it more adventurous than most people, but that’s OK. His principal mistake seems to be failing to appreciate that the rules of exploring had changed now that he has a wife and kids. A satellite phone would have been useful, if for nothing else than to let them know that he was still alive and didn’t need rescuing. There’s no need to read too much into this story.
The comments cheered me up after reading the drivel above them. Here are some of my favourites (and this is a good opportunity to remind you of my own commenting guidelines).
> “trip appears to have been prompted by a midlife crisis.”
He is an explorer off doing some exploring not a fifty-something accountant buying a Harley.
> “its effect was to reinforce Great British colonial narratives of black savagery”
I mainly thought it made him look like a bit of a tit, but carry on.
I’m not sure what the problem is with using words such as “explore”, “lost” and “discover” … Columbus did discover bits of the New World. I thought I’d discovered a lovely Italian restaurant while exploring Bristol, but then my wife told me she’d been there with friends.
Poor bloke. If getting lost wasn’t enough, he’s apparently now also a massive racist for doing so.
> “White men such as Benedict Allen should cease their meaningless, problematic “explorations” and focus instead on the ways they can counter the privileges they inhabit, at home and abroad.”
Satire, surely? You’re having us on, Charlie, you scallywag. Nobody could really be this smug.
How can something be simultaneously “meaningless” and “problematic”?
I knew the Guardian would do a piece on this man’s racism as soon as I heard of the story. Sure enough this glorious newspaper didn’t let me down.
‘Great’ Britain is a geographical term: it refers to a physical entity. It’s not great as in ‘isn’t it great to be British?’