Usually I collect stories of ninety year olds who run marathons, sail down the Ganges with their sketch books, finally and reluctantly give up cycling, graduate with a doctorate or even take up line dancing.
But suddenly I’ve found myself with a collection of the stories of young men who’ve done things that catch the imagination.
The unlikely standard bearer for this troop is Peter Nicholson. As a lad of 16, while he was at school at Timbertop, the exclusive wilderness school in Victoria, he spent his nights down wombat burrows, learning about their habits to such an extent that he is still cited in wombat research today. I first read about him years ago in Australian wildlife, one of those buy-a-magazine-a-month-and-build-them-up-into-an-encyclopedia deals. Unlike most things I read, it lodged in an easy-recall part of my brain, so I’ve been collecting information about him on and off ever since.
What impressed me is the daring of his enterprise; the focus and thoroughness of his explorations; his youth; and the covert blessing the school gave to his night-time absences.
Charles Darwin is famous for many things. However, as I read The voyage of the Beagle recently, it was his youth that I was in awe of, and not only his youth but the vastness of his knowledge. He was interested in geology, botany, biology and had already at the age of 22 read voraciously and entered into correspondence with experts in each of these fields. Then he embarked on a five-year journey around the world, exploring on land whenever the opportunity arose and speculating with boundless curiosity about everything he saw.
Rimbaud was a grubby youth, morally and physically, prowling the underbelly of France from the time he was 13. Although he gave up writing poetry at 20, he is remembered as a great poet. None of my preconceptions about him prepared me for the empathy in The transfixed, which certainly doesn’t read like the work of an adolescent wild one. Black in the snow and fog, at the great lighted air-shaft, their bums / rounded, on their knees, five little ones – what anguish! – watch the baker making heavy white bread.
An idle conversation in my local book-shop introduced me to Patrick Leigh Fermor. When he was 17, he decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople instead of completing school and set out in winter in 1933. As he travelled across Central Europe in the days before the war, he slept rough on many occasions, but he also overnighted with aristocrats, farmers and monks, finding surprisingly few hints of things to come. When he died recently he was in his nineties and still working on the final volume of his young man’s travels.
George Raper is the latest in my pantheon. He sailed at 17 with the First Fleet. By then he’d already been at sea for 3 years. When he arrived in the fledgling settlement, he sat with his watercolours and painted the flowers and birds around Sydney Cove with the tablet paints from his new paintbox. Many of his paintings have only just surfaced and the colours are still splendidly vivid. Before he was 20 he had watched the Sirius go down near Norfolk Island and by the time he was 27 he was dead.
These are five young men I admire: the close observer of the natural world, the explorer / polymath, the poet, the traveller and the artist. These are lives I could have wanted for myself. In fact, these are the lives I live, albeit in relatively puny, pallid versions, now.