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Home / Latest News / Author’s Notes: Adventurer John Harrison takes us on an intimate journey of discovery

Author’s Notes: Adventurer John Harrison takes us on an intimate journey of discovery

My first memories of home take me to a council house within spying distance of Liverpool FC’s training ground. 

It was a nice comfy house, I won’t have a possible misery memoir to fall back on if travel writing ever fails me. 

My early heroes were from all walks of life, including footballer Ian St John, Guy Gibson of the Dam Busters, and Leonardo da Vinci. 

Another hero was more obvious, given my middle name is Arthur, but it wasn’t the king himself.

I didn’t know what a cuckold was, but I could recognise a goody-two-shoes when I saw one. 

I loved Merlin.  He was tricksy and an outsider, and was more powerful and feared than all the tin-overcoated knights. 

I soon learned that spells are woven from words.

Books were special in that house; they were the way out.  As a boy, my father had won one of just six scholarships in the whole of Liverpool to go to the fee-paying Alsop High School. 

He would have gone on to college, but the 1930s wasn’t a good time for that.  He finished his education as a bomb-aimer and navigator in RAF Bomber Command, flying 74 missions: probability of surviving: about 2%. 

He wanted us to have what Hitler had stolen from him.

Our only regular parcels were the monthly volumes of the Companion Book Club.  Many were memoirs or biographies of war heroes, others were adventurers like Percy Harrison Fawcett, (no relation unfortunately) trekking through the virgin forests of South America. 

Aged eight I had only the vaguest idea of what a virgin might be, and why a forest might be full of them.

I have clear memories of reading  Treasure Island and a children’s version of  Robinson Crusoe. 

No sensible child could grow up in the ’50s thinking war was romantic, but tropical islands and jungles? 

I was there each night, with a torch under the bedclothes.

I am not sure I even knew authors were real people.

Who wrote these books? 

In my class, no one’s mum or dad was a writer. 

The most important qualification for being a famous author was being dead, preferably for quite some time. 

That struck me as a big commitment.  

The few writers who were alive seemed to live in the south of France. 

I did other things at university, but I also I wrote in secret.  In my late 20s, I came out of the closet to hone my trade in night classes in creative writing with the poet Chris Torrance at Cardiff University. 

At the end of the first year I had a short story published on the old BBC Morning Story slot. 

I didn’t resign my job on the basis of the £75 fee.  But I thought the first instalment on the Bentley wouldn’t be far off. 

Of course nothing followed for two years. Writing has gone on being an up and down business. 

I gave up the day job 15 years ago, and I don’t suppose I have earned my living the same way for more than two years in a row. 

You teach a bit, review a bit and do whatever it takes to still have most days free to write. 

I have shifted from fiction to travel writing, which is what has worked for me. 

I spend most of my non-writing time working on small luxury cruise ships as a guide and lecturer, usually visiting the places I have written about. 

I have brushed up my CV with skills I had never dreamt of acquiring, like driving small inflatable powerboats in ice-filled polar seas. 

The book Forgotten Footprints for which I am shortlisted this year came out of this. 

There was no single history book telling tourists to Antarctica the history of what they actually saw along the coast. 

Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton all travelled deep in the interior, where visitors do not go. 

My hobby has become my job, and it is immensely satisfying, especially when it is recognised by prizes such as the Wales Book of the Year. 

But most importantly, life has not been deferred for my spare time or retirement. 

It is here and now. 

Last autumn I was diagnosed with cancer.  It now seems to be cured, but at one point I was told I might have just six months to live. 

In the darkest of times, I could look back and know that giving up office work to travel and write, was the best investment in time I ever made. 

You can die on an adventure, but it beats withering away on a ward.

 

Forgotten Footprints is published by Parthian

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