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Out and aboutpost

Outpost: a journey to the wild ends of the earth
by Dan Richards
£16.99 (hardback)

Imagination fired by a picture of his father outside an Arctic shed, artist and writer Dan Richards sets off in search of places that ‘allow mankind a foothold in otherwise inhospitable terrain’.

Icelandic ‘houses of joy’ (not what they sound like), fire-watching belvederes, a Mars-research training facility, an offshore lighthouse: Richards hankers after the ‘astringent’ and ‘spartan’ architectures of these fixtures built ‘where nature takes over’. And though he’s not the type to wrestle overmuch with definitions, the bothies of the Highlands perhaps come closest to his ideal of ‘small emergency refuge shelter only.’

Ranulph Fiennes he is not, however. Slightly harried, somewhat clumsy (he smashes his phone before he even gets to Iceland), terribly enthusiastic, the tone of Outpost is part adventure/travelogue, part live-in art project. He has a tendency to the poetic phrase, and is extremely generous towards artistic sensibilities (not all readers will be convinced by the Turner Prize-winning shed-made-into-a-boat-then-into-a-shed-again chapter), but he avoids the pitfalls of a lot of earnest and/or politically-motivated nature writing. And while he dutifully name-checks the usual suspects like Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin and Wendell Berry, he is by inclination, one feels, more likely to refer to Werner Herzog movies, or Björk.

The end result is like a more-upbeat Geoff Dyer, written in engaging and thoughtful prose – literally: he narrates his thoughts sometimes – with occasional mock-ingenuousness, and cheerful punning. He has a nicely self-deflating sense of humour (the Arctic shed, he notes, is just that: a common-or-garden shed, noteworthy only for the fact that it’s in Svalbard). I chuckled frequently. He’s also not afraid of detours or of anticlimaxes, and is creditably shy of being seen to ‘retrofit significance’.

It would be wrong to suggest Outpost is more about the journeys than the destinations – but Richards’ real talent is in people-watching. One of his outposts is in fact a writers’ retreat in Switzerland (complete with heated floors), in which he concludes that few of us, honestly, do our best work in isolation. And just how viable is that sort of lonely travel, these days? ‘How far was far enough to truly be remote’? (One wonders, frankly, if more folk mightn’t travel further/harder if ‘not dying’ was more or less their sole objective).

Quite fittingly, he never makes it to Ny-Ålesund, whither his father went: it is protected now. Jack Kerouac wrote that ‘no man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness’. To this Dan Richards adds the imperative of ‘making guardians of consumers’ in our besieged environment.

For Geographical

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