Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 6
The final instalment of Simon Akam’s re-exploration of the literature of male adolescence…
Now Willard Price. By the time I turned to ‘African Adventure’ and ‘Underwater Adventure’ I was reaching the limit of my tolerance for this particular act of literary regression. We can deal with the pair of books quite swiftly too. The author was a naturalist who penned a 14-strong series (adventurously titled ‘The Adventure Series’) of children’s books. The series chronicles the escapades of Hal and Roger, teenage sons of a celebrated naturalist.
The central conceit has aged badly in this environmentally inclined new century (originally the series was published between 1949 and 1980). Hal and Roger’s father John Hunt is not an Attenborough-esq, conservationist figure. Rather he captures beasts and birds and sells them to zoos (Rio and Hamburg’s establishments are mentioned). “If you see anything interesting down there, bring it up,” announces Dr Blake, another naturalist standing in for the Hunt paterfamilias in ‘Underwater Adventure,’ before the boys plunge into the azure waters of a lagoon. Memories of my own PADI training indicate this approach is no longer considered best practise in scuba diving.
Not only is the central practise of these books rather loathsome to modern sensibilities, but also the structure of the two I re-read was astonishingly formulaic. In both the boys had a few zoological scrapes before the entry of a blocking figure – in ‘Underwater Adventure’ a villainous fellow scamp called Skink Inkham, in ‘African Adventure’ a failed white farmer known as Colonel Bigg. The blocker gets in everyone’s way, potentially tries to kill one or both of the boys, and is finally vanquished. It is said that very small children thrive on repetition, but I think the teenage audience these books were originally aimed at frankly deserved better.
The fault lies less with the subject matter than the treatment. You can write a good book about a safari – Hemingway’s ‘Green Hills of Africa’ for example. Price just did not. Likewise, as I read my two adventure stories a series of unanswered questions sprang to mind too, which I doubt troubled me on first reading. What, for example, is the business model of the Hunt family animal hunting? In ‘African Adventure’ the safari is equipped with a large assortment of vehicles (we know, because at one point they go head to head with a herd of buffalo). How are these pantechnicons paid for? Are the receipts from the Hamburger Tiergarten really sufficient? More fundamentally too, over and over again as I re-read these slight and unfulfilling texts, I wondered where, oh where, is Hal and Roger’s mother? She seems to be neglecting basic duties of care.
Done then. What have we learned? Never go back is one possible moral. To re-engage with a quantity beloved in first youth is always reckless, even if books cannot age in a way that, to chose another property in initial bloom at the time I read Clancy et al, the Spice Girls have done. (The same, it should be said, is true also for things I despised at that age; today I barely even dislike courgettes, which seems to fundamentally undermine the integrity of my erstwhile hatred).
More seriously though, I would posit the following conclusion. Narrative retains its power to grip even as reading tastes change. However, narrative alone becomes insufficient in adulthood. The writing that appeals to the male adolescent lands full adult engagement because it is fundamentally a literature of the surface. If one does go back, one can skim but not sink into it.
Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent: The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).