Gavin Young (1928-2001): An Introduction

An introduction to the work of Gavin Young whose books, including Slow Boats Home and Slow Boats to China, are reissued in Faber Finds.

Gavin Young was almost fifty when his first book Return to the Marshes was published in 1977. This and its successor Iraq: Land of Two Rivers (1980) described Young’s life and journeys in southern Iraq, among the Marsh Arabs, to whom he was introduced by the great explorer and traveller, Wilfred Thesiger. In May 1952 Thesiger wrote telling his mother ‘Gavin Young who works with a firm in Basra and is keen to see something of Arab tribal life has been with me for a week … He is a nice lad and I am always glad to help anyone who is keen on this sort of life’.

Gavin David Young was born in London on 24 April 1928. He fantasised that he had been conceived at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo; and in his nursery, for some reason, there was a Semiramis ashtray. His sister Bridget was five years older. Their father, Gavin Young, was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Welsh Guards. Daphne, their mother, was the younger daughter of Sir Charles Leolin Forestier-Walker KBE, of Park House, Rhiwderin, in Monmouthshire.

As a boy at Rugby, Gavin spent the holidays either in South Wales or at Bude, in Cornwall, where the bookshelves of his grandmother’s house were filled with Kipling and Conrad. Their stories, and a view of the sea from a round upstairs window. made him impatient to discover the world beyond.

From 1946 to 1948, Young did National Service with his father’s regiment in Palestine and Jordan. At Trinity College, Oxford he read modern history; after Oxford he joined a merchant bank, then a firm of shipping brokers, Ralli Brothers, in Iraq. In the British Consulate at Basra he first met Wilfred Thesiger.

Young resigned from his job and during 1952-1954 lived with the Marsh Arabs. Encouraged by Thesiger, he worked for Desert Locust Control, based in Saudi Arabia, until the Suez crisis in 1956. He wrote to Thesiger in November 1954: ‘So at last I am in Saudi Arabia … Locust Control operates nearly everywhere in Arabia from Jeddah, so that I should get a good opportunity of seeing the country … My little [Marsh] Arabic seems to serve with some adaptations, I am glad and surprised to find’. But after seven months, in the Hejaz and Asir, by the following December he longed to see Thesiger and Iraq once more and ‘go straight up to the Marshes’. His youthful passion for Iraq never waned; and it is this above all which sets the pages of Return to the Marshes afire.

Ian Fleming was writing his fourth James Bond novel when Young met him in 1958 in Tangier. Fleming steered him towards journalism. As a result Young joined the Observer as a stringer in Tunis covering the Algerian war. When civil war erupted in 1960 in the newly-independent Belgian Congo, the Observer sent him there.

Over many years, Young reported a succession of fifteen revolutions or wars in countries such as Angola, Nagaland, Cambodia, Iran and Yemen. Faced with a drunken mob, a friendly smile and a packet of cigarettes once got him out of danger. His reaction, ‘What the hell am I doing in this stupid place?’ was quoted frequently. Young also worked as the Observer correspondent in New York in 1962-63 and Paris in 1967. Fellow journalists, including Mark Tully, praised Young’s stylish reporting. In 1971 he won the International Reporter of the Year Award, for his coverage from Dhaka of the Indo-Pakistan war and the ‘birth of Bangladesh’.

As a travel writer Young found his niche with Slow Boats to China (1981) and Slow Boats Home (1985), which he inscribed for Thesiger, ‘Another damn great book, but you started it!’. While Thesiger complained that Young’s books were occasionally spoilt by trivia, he also praised his acute observation and skill portraying his companions and passers-by; and his brilliant evocations of landscape, exotic as well as familiar which bring alive Slow Boats to China and Slow Boats Home. On his outward journey twenty-three craft, including a steamer and a dhow, carried Young from Piraeus in the Aegean across the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to Canton. His return voyage among the South Sea islands and round Cape Horn involved near disaster, mutiny and shipwreck off the coast of Brazil.

Young’s American odyssey, From Sea to Shining Sea (1995), led from ‘whale-haunted Atlantic ports’ to the Alamo; to the frozen Yukon of Jack London; vast ranges where buffalo once roamed; and the scene of Custer’s last stand.

One of his finest travel books, In Search of Conrad (1991), was a joint winner of the Thomas Cook Award. To write his Search Young sailed for five months round the Indonesian islands – filling notebooks, and the endpapers of any book he was reading with sketches of people, snatches of conversation and anecdotes he picked up in waterfront bars and hotels. Young’s quest for Conrad’s eastern world, and men and women who gave substance to the characters in Lord Jim and Almayer’s Folly, produced some of his finest writing.

A total contrast – no less challenging and technically demanding – Beyond Lion Rock (1988) tells the fascinating story of Cathay Pacific Airways, the dream of a Texan entrepreneur, who founded the company in 1946 in Shanghai.

Set in Vietnam, A Wavering Grace (1998) is one of Young’s most moving and unusual books. It tells of his relationship with the tragic land he first visited as a war correspondent in 1965. In the ancient town of Hue, Young stayed with a widow, Madame Bong, and her family, to whom he became closely attached. After the American withdrawal in 1975, Young worked from overseas to help family members obtain exit visas and passage to the United States; this proved far from easy or safe, but was preferable to the alternative of joining the perilous ranks of the boat people.

He found them again years later – undefeated, rebuilding their shattered lives. ‘Whether at home or in exile, they had discovered a means to survive’.

Worlds Apart (1987) is a selection of Young’s journalism, much of this written for the Observer, which recreates very vividly his travels in remote and exciting places. The same year Worlds Apart was published, Young was honoured with Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature.

Lavishly illustrated by Young’s superb photographs, Eye on the World (1998), his last book, celebrated the gifted travel-writer’s adventurous life and his achievements in what became, in effect, a pictorial autobiography.

Young was a lifelong bachelor who belonged to many London clubs. His staunch friend, confidante and Observer colleague, Gritta Weil, helped to organise his travels and assisted with his books. Young dedicated Eye on the World to Gritta, whom he described affectionately as ‘my wonderful sea anchor’.

Aged seventy-two, Gavin Young died in London after a long illness, on 18 January 2001.

A number of Gavin Young’s books are now available in Faber Finds.