Sometimes the most interesting conversations I have with politicians aren’t about politics at all. Recently I got talking to the Labour MP for Wrexham, Ian Lucas, abut the Norwegian anthropologist-adventurer Thor Heyerdahl. Ian had bought a second-hand copy of Heyerdahl’s account of his famous attempt in 1947 to cross the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft called Kon-Tiki. I’d recalled how much my imagination had been captured as a young boy by a TV programme in the 1970s about this man with (it seemed to me) a funny name and funny-looking boats.
I’m ploughing breathlessly through this 1951 edition of ‘The Kon-Tiki Expedition.’ It hasn’t dated badly at all; it’s a rattling good read, fast-paced and funny. I’ll post more when I finish it, but I wanted to share the wonderful opening paragraphs because you’ll see why the book gripped me from the very beginning. They deserve to be quoted in full.
Just occasionally you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.
If, for example, you put to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinarily, and begin to think about it.
On one such morning I sat writing in a dew-drenched log-book:
“17th May. Norwegian Independence Day. Heavy sea. Fair wind. I am cook to-day and found 7 flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof, and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag…”
Here the pencil stopped, and the same thought came sneaking out: this is really a queer Seventeenth of May; indeed, taken all round, a most peculiar existence. How did it all begin?
If I turned left, I had an unimpeded view of a vast blue sea with hissing waves, rolling by close at hand in an endless pursuit of an ever retreating horizon. If I turned right, I saw the inside of a shadowy cabin in which a bearded individual was lying on his back reading Goethe, with his bare toes carefully dug into the lattice-work in the low bamboo roof of the crazy little cabin that was our common home.
“Bengt,” I said, pushing away the green parrot, which wanted to perch on the log-book. “Can you tell me how the hell we came to be doing this?”
Goethe sank down under the red-gold beard.
“The devil I do, you know best yourself. It was your damned idea, but I think it’s grand.”
He moved his toes three bars up and went on reading Geothe unperturbed.