FROM Hemingway’s Santiago to Nick Hancock’s Rockall adventure, quests continue to fascinate, writes Roger Cox
I’m currently reading The Old Man and The Sea to my four-year-old as a bedtime story. At the time of writing we’re up to page 85 and he shows no signs of getting bored with it. Quite the opposite, in fact: now, when I give him a choice of books, he always picks Hemingway over all his old favourites.
When we first started out I didn’t expect him to last more than a couple of pages before he got bored and asked for something with pirates in. Or dinosaurs. Or both. I was really just chancing my arm – hoping that I could somehow con him into liking a book I liked so I’d have an excuse to re-read it. But now, against the odds, here we are on page 85, with Santiago hunkering down in the bow of his little boat for a second night of being towed across the Atlantic by the giant marlin he’s hooked, trying to decide if he should get some sleep or stay awake.
How are we going to cope with the eventual death of the fish in 20 pages or so? Or the shark attack scenes that come not long after that? Like Santiago, we have both become rather fond of the proud, mysterious marlin, so things might get a bit emotional. I suppose there may need to be a little parental editing at certain key moments, particularly when those mean old sharks make an appearance. If he were still alive, Ernesto would no doubt tell me to “read the boy the whole damn thing,” but while he was undoubtedly a great writer, he is rarely referenced on Mumsnet as an examplar of good parenting, so I think I’ll just ignore that hypothetical advice and wield my editor’s red pen when I deem it necessary.
Anyway, as I say, I’m mostly just amazed we’ve made it this far. By the standards of most books aimed at four-year-olds – in which there seems to be an earth-shattering plot development on almost every line – not much has happened yet. Santiago has hung out on the beach for a while, chatted with the young boy who takes care of him when he has no money for food, then woken early, rowed himself out to sea and hooked himself a whopper. The rest, really, has been padding. Nobel prize-winning padding, right enough, but not vital to the plot.
So why are we still reading? My theory, for what it’s worth, is that no matter how old you are there’s something inherently compelling about a man on a mission, a man out to prove something to himself and the world. “I told the boy I was a strange old man,” Santiago says at one point. “Now is when I must prove it.” And, of course, in the end, in spite of the sharks, he does.
This same sense of a man on a mission is to be found in Rockall Solo, a new book by the Edinburgh-based adventurer Nick Hancock. Last summer, in order to raise funds for Help For Heroes (and also, no doubt, to prove something to himself and the world) Hancock set out to break the record for the longest solo occupation of Rockall – the tiny craggy islet lying 230 miles off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides that most people only usually think of in relation to the Shipping Forecast. Having built himself a nifty plastic survival pod, designed to withstand the worst weather the North Atlantic could throw at it, and having sorted out the logistics of food, water, communications and so-on with military precision, he hitched a ride out to the rock with Kilda Cruises on 4 June, installed his pod near the summit, and then spent 45 days there, all alone, breaking the record of 40 days set by Tom McClean in 1985.
Much like Santiago’s story, then, Hancock’s tale is about a man surviving as best he can in a confined space, surrounded on all sides by a hostile ocean; the stage is enormous, but the protagonist only ever occupies a tiny part of it. And like Santiago’s story, Hancock’s doesn’t have all that much plot to it. But just as The Old Man and the Sea comes alive in the details – the way Santiago arranges his lines, the way he prepares raw fish, the way he deals with the cramp in his left hand – so the real interest in Rockall Solo lies in the minutiae. How do you get an eight foot long, 180kg pod up an almost sheer cliff face? How do you secure it to a tiny ledge once you get there? How do you then sort yourself out with food, water and electricity? As if to give an indication of how much work is involved in all of the above, it isn’t until Day Ten of his confinement that Hancock writes “this morning I felt a pang of proper boredom for the first time”.