EXPLORATION FAWCETT (1953, Hutchinson) by Percy Harrison Fawcett

A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.

An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.

Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.

The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.

In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.

Percy ‘Exploration’ Fawcett

A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?

Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).

Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.

PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…

PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.

A BRIEF HISTORIOGRAPHY OF CONVICT ESCAPE MYTHOLOGY 

In history’s pages, the efforts that runaway convicts in colonial Australia made to reach mythical bush sanctuaries is a topic almost as obscure as the phantom colonies themselves.   

When I came to write Tour To Hell I soon found that, for well over a century, commentary on the topic had barely gone further than an incredulous escape anecdote or two, along with brief mention of the ignorance and desperation that clearly drove such attempts.  While no-one seems to have attempted the full story, over the years several writers have considered aspects of escape mythology that fall within the orbit of their primary concerns. 

The pattern was set in the 19th century. Ernest Favenc’s History of Australian Exploration From 1788 To 1888 briefly presented the journeys of the earliest myth-inspired escapees – mostly Irish and ‘panting for liberty’ – as a weird prelude to more conventional exploration of Australia. Favenc, who was an explorer himself, was sufficiently fascinated by the idea of mystery outback civilisations to write a Rider Haggard-type novel, The Secret of the Australian Desert (1895).

A decade later, George Boxall (Story Of The Australian Bushrangers) acknowledged escape myths in another context, noting that some of the earliest bushrangers were runaways with ‘incredible’ notions of nearby settlements. He reminded his late-Victorian readers that ‘the majority of the working classes at the beginning of the century could not read and had no knowledge of geography’.  

Fast forward to The Fatal Shore (1988) by Robert Hughes, perhaps the most famous general convict history. Hughes confines most of his brief escape myth commentary to one lengthy footnote, stating that ‘the fantasy of escape to China was one of the obsessive images of early transportation’, and that Irish runaways had created a ‘Paradise myth to alleviate their antipodean Purgatory’. Patrick O’Farrell (The Irish In Australia, 1986) regrets the convicts’ error offered such rich fodder for Irish stereotyping, which he finds echoing through our national story ever since.  

In 1987, Paul Carter’s Road To Botany Bay offered a new approach. Carter used the earliest examples of these escapes to illustrate a wider point that the colony’s ‘law and order were not self-fulfilling, but the offspring of the convicts’ collusion in the dream’. In other words, to go bush was to subvert the convict-driven empire-building which England’s plans for Australia required.  

Carter adopts a revisionist perspective that the convict myth was merely a story to hoodwink colonial officials. To me this is a false trail, untenable given the full weight of evidence, as Tour To Hell details. But to his credit Carter seems to have been the first writer to deeply consider the nature of the convict myth. As a poet preoccupied with his own idiosyncratic notion of ‘spatial history’, Carter prefers to see ‘Chinas and inland kingdoms’ as ‘metaphors which concealed, rather than revealed a plot to travel’. 

Martin Thomas, within the context of his Blue Mountains historiography The Artificial Horizon (2004) sees the convict myths of place as, ‘despite their indeterminacy, among the most important fragments that survive from the colonial period’. In them, he argues, we see how the colony was not just developed by ‘rational enterprise’, but by ‘the fictional, the fantastic, the imagined’. 

Thomas includes a rare acknowledgement that the myth outlasted the first Blue Mountains crossing, and also thoughtful consideration of the Aboriginal use of phantom settlements. He spends 18 pages on mythical settlements, delving more deeply than most other accounts.

In Tour To Hell my intention was complete immersion in the story of what was, above all else, itself a story, a convict story, probably the first piece of lasting folklore to arise in the Australian colonies.

I’ve been sick as two dogs. I won’t bore with the symptoms, especially since I’m now just sick as a dog, which is half-way back I guess. Anyway, one side-effect of being off work and unable to sleep properly was getting a fair bit of reading done.

James Bradley’s recent article about John Wyndham in the Australian generated a whim to pluck the nest of his bedraggled Penguins from the back of my shelf: Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chysalids. I’d read a couple of them before but this was different, a real Wyndham bender.

The end of the world always looms in Wyndham’s best books. Of course almost 60 years has passed and it is mostly his world ending, not ours anymore. Arguably this loss of immediacy has diminished the horror and tension that made these books bestsellers, but Wyndham is such a graceful and interesting writer that it hardly matters.

Almost all negative critics of his books exhibit reverse-snob prejudice against his characters – mostly tweedy, well-educated middle-class Brits (how dare he!) – or blame him for reflecting some of his era’s social mores. The dated aspect that most jumps out at me is how readily the media assist authorities in suppressing information in Kraken and Cuckoos. It wouldn’t happen today (not nohow!) but the past is another country and all that.

The Kraken Wakes and Midwich Cuckoos are superior alien invasion tales, going far beyond that simple premise in presentation and plausibility. Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids pose post-nuclear problems, albeit in totally different ways. Or to group them another way, Cuckoos and Chrysalids both concern children with impossibly advanced mental powers; in Triffids and Kraken, society faces rapid disintegration from extraterrestrial sources – a meteor shower triggering orbital nukes in the former, unseen sea monsters in the latter.

The Midwich Cuckoos filmed as Village Of The Damned (1960)

The Triffids – fictional plant-monsters so superbly realised that the word long ago entered English dictionaries – have their ‘day’ when a planetary disaster makes them fitter to survive than blinded, beleagured humanity.

The Kraken Wakes has ‘bathies’, cryptic killers who land in the oceanic abyss, possibly from Jupiter, and move to wipe us out.

The Midwich Cuckoos, famously filmed as Village of the Damned, posits alien invasion via human wombs. All kinds of ethical dilemmas arise about dealing with the lethal offspring. The motivations behind these incursions remain obscure; as for the triffids, well, they’re just doing what comes naturally – our mistake was to unwittingly create an environment they could dominate. Plot and ideas are paramount over character; the first-person protagonist in all of them could just about be the same man, and I do tend to picture them all as Wyndham himself.

John Wyndham

These three books are often condemned as ‘cosy catastrophes’  by those who consider them old hat. Apparently Brian Aldiss coined the phrase, a tasty irony now that his cod-psychedelic Barefoot In The Head is among the most dated and unreadable relics of 1960s New Wave science fiction.

Wyndham’s novels may not be high Literature but I’ve no doubt they have literary value way beyond mere thrillers. The skill with which he articulates the implications of his speculative scenarios has a sophistication evoking HG Wells.

One reason behind Wyndham’s fall from favour may be his overriding concern with the sheer ruthlessness of inter-species conflict. It’s a grim truth we can bear less now that we increasingly prefer to see Nature in benign terms, revering it as spiritual refreshment even while we despoil like never before. Largely shielded from Nature’s routine cruelties, we can afford to romanticise it as a harmonious force, but Wyndham reminds us that its essence is bloody struggle to survive.

The poster was the best thing about the 1962 Day Of The Triffids adaption

In our current social climate, any suggestion that conflict between diverse groups is inevitable risks being dismissed as a political incorrectness tinged with xenophobia. To me this is a fundamental misreading of Wyndham, however, as amoral biological conflict between species is a different theme altogether from bigoted conflict within or between human societies.

Admittedly Wyndham muddies the water a little in The Chrysalids, with his telepathic mutant children more an evolution of our kind rather than something completely different. Perhaps this is why it seems to attract more ideological debate these days than his other novels. Set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in which constant genetic mutation has prompted religious tyranny, The Chrysalids has less in common than the others and is perhaps the most thematically complex. But it is absurd to assume Wyndham approves of whatever social Darwinism some characters appear to espouse.

It’s true that most of Wyndham’s novels have village vicars and cups of tea and stiff upper lips. But these were simply realistic elements of the everyday world his scenarios collapsed. Our seat atop Nature’s table depends on the fortunate absence of a rival to match us. We act as if this luxury is guaranteed. But Wyndham’s flights of fantastic extrapolation shatter this complacency, ending all comfort and safety with deadly plausibility and urbane, page-turning flair.