At some point in the future, I’m pretty sure Dan Richards is going to write a book that I can fall in love with. I enjoyed big chunks of 2016’s Climbing Days, in which he took an entertainingly off-kilter approach to writing a biography of his great-great aunt, the noted mountaineer Dorothy Pilley, by following in her footsteps in the mountains of Wales and Switzerland. However, while some of the meandering digressions proved intriguing or illuminating, others were simply frustrating, and the book also suffered from questionable editing from the folks at Faber & Faber. Richards’ new book, Outpost, has clearly been properly proofread (kudos to the team at Canongate) and some of the descriptive writing is wonderfully vivid – cinematic even – but, as with Climbing Days, there’s a niggling sense that the author keeps getting distracted from the main thrust of his story, and the intellectual wandering off and ping-ponging around can get so convoluted that you’re left wondering if there is even a main thrust to return to.
As the title suggests, the overarching concept binding everything together is Richards’ desire to visit man-made structures on the edge – “cabins and isolated stations; utilitarian constructions, pared-back buildings of essential first principles”. Each chapter deals with a different outpost or group of outposts, so we visit bothies in the Cairngorms, the (roughly) equivalent Sæluhús network in Iceland, the French lighthouse Phare de Cordouan and the 9th century Japanese temple Sanbutsu-ji, whose Nageire Hall (or Nageire-dō) is perched precariously on stilts on a ledge halfway up a cliff.
As he admits in his introduction, some of the outposts he visits stretch the definition somewhat: the stark but stylish writing pods of the Fondation Jan Michalski pour l’écriture et la littérature in Montricher, Switzerland, for example, aren’t exactly remote (they are only about a kilometre from the shops and cafés the town centre) but his stay there does at least demonstrate that it is tricky to create something that feels like an outpost in a suburban setting.
Another artificial outpost on the itinerary is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah – a training facility designed to replicate conditions on the red planet, situated in a particularly red bit of desert. In this case the setting really is remote, and there are much more meaningful insights to be gleaned about the kinds of people who are best equipped to survive and thrive in confined spaces far from civilisation.
The chapter on the fire-watching huts of Washington State, and in particular the author’s pilgrimage to the one formerly occupied by Jack Kerouac on Desolation Peak, is brilliantly done: perceptive about Kerouac’s state of mind during his stay and so atmospheric you’ll feel as if you’ve yomped up there yourself. By contrast, the final chapter, which deals with some of the far-flung settlements of Svalbard, feels too diffuse – too many outposts, not enough detail – and the conclusion that all the outposts in the book are linked by the fact that they “allow people to engage with the world inside and out in various ways” feels nebulous-verging-on-meaningless. - Roger Cox
Outpost, by Dan Richards, Canongate, £16.99