Rory MacLean was born and educated in Canada. His books, including bestsellers Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon, have challenged and invigorated travel writing, and - according to John Fowles - are among works that ‘marvellously explain why literature still lives’.
He has won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work prize and an Arts Council Writers’ Award, was twice shortlisted for the Thomas Cook / Daily Telegraph Travel Book Prize and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award. He lives with his family in Dorset.
From a writer who has won huge acclaim for his travel writing comes a compelling story that combines travel with personal memoir. Falling for Icarus is Rory MacLean’s story of a passion for feathered flight that grew out of the grief of losing his mother, and how a dream can soften the sadness.
We’ve managed to track Rory down to ask him a few questions on memories, monogamy and Marlene Dietrich.
What's your earliest memory?
Pasting together a cardboard world atlas, with crayons and cellotape, and inventing the places which lay between the few countries I knew.
Which author do you most admire?
Lawrence Durrell though he's out of fashion at the moment. Durrell writes of ‘willing oneself up the imaginative scale’. He evokes the Greek islands with passion and gilds his travel books with flashes of fiction.
Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
‘Get Around’ by the Beach Boys. Looking beyond Falling for Icarus, I’m now writing my sixth book, which follows the Sixties ‘hippie’ trail overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu. At the end of most working days I click on iTunes, get up from my computer and dance!
What are you reading at the moment?
Kerouac’s On the Road, Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and McCartney / Miles Many Years From Now initiators and documentalists of the Sixties.
What is your greatest fear?
That my son will become a Council Tax payment enforcement officer.
How do you spoil yourself?
Sleep (you try writing a book with a two-year-old crashing around the house).
How would you like to be remembered?
Still standing, pen in hand, topi on head.
What's your favourite word?
'The End' though no sooner have I written it than I'm itching to write two more words 'Chapter One'.
Who do you turn to in a crisis?
Winston the pig as met in Stalin’s Nose.
What makes you angry?
Have you ever had any other jobs apart from writing?
For ten years I sweated away in the film biz, failing to become a director but managing to work with Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Ken Russell and Donald Sutherland.
Are you in love? Constantly.
Do you believe in monogamy?
‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three’, wrote Philip Larkin, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP. So hats off to the Sixties again. But for me bonking around ends before the wedding. Marriage is a commitment made for life.
What are you proudest of?
Having a hand-made aeroplane in my garage.
Where do you write?
Anywhere I can play the Beach Boys, The Beatles, Dylan, Van Morrison, Tristan and Isolde, The Who.
Rory MacLean writes exclusively for penguin.co.uk about some of the inspiration behind Magic Bus
Only 30 years ago Western travellers breezed through Afghanistan. English girls hitchhiked alone across Anatolia with flowers in their hair. Free-spirited teenagers from London and Los Angeles were welcomed as honoured guests in Baghdad. Now a Western passport, once respected, is a liability in much of the Middle East. No sane tourist visits Mosul or Kandahar. Visitors to the Hindu Kush often fear for their lives. So what went wrong? How did we squander the promise and trust of the Sixties and Seventies?
I missed out on the Summer of Love. I was born too late to join a San Francisco co-op, to score at Woodstock, to man the barricades in Paris. Instead I grew up on the periphery of those diverse and idealistic years; making movies with Ken Russell and David Hemmings in London, singing a duet with David Bowie in Berlin, hearing the gun shots which killed John Lennon. Although forever beyond reach, the Sixties moulded my whole life, in their irreverent creativity, cultural curiosity and soaring optimism.
The greatest journey of that time – the real 'Magical Mystery Tour' - was the Asia Overland hippie trail to India. Between 1961 and 1979 hundreds of thousands of Western kids headed east in search of experience, enlightenment and a better world. Inspired by Kerouac and the Beatles, these intrepid pioneers travelled in the weirdest procession of unroadworthy vehicles ever to rattle and rock across the face of the earth: rainbow-coloured double-deckers, clapped-out VW Campers, decrepit Post Office vans and war surplus Jeeps. Their wide-eyed adventure transformed their lives and the countries they traversed, unleashing forces which changed forever the way we travel the world. Lonely Planet, gap years, even the Turkish tourist industry all date from that time. The young travellers may even have contributed - according to Bruce Chatwin and others - to the collapse of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution.
In 2003, after the fall of the Taliban, the trail reopened for the first time in a generation. I saw an opportunity not only to capture the spirit and stories of those heady years, and to compare youthful idealism then and now, but to understand why the Sixties cast such long shadows over our own fearful and protective era.
Over five months, on foot and by bus, I travelled through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Istanbul I met the original Flower Child. In Tehran, capital of revolution, I encountered two Iranian boys whose dream of wealth in the West ended in tragedy. In Kabul I picked through the smashed statues which are now Afghanistan's history. At Bamiyan, site of the sixth century Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, I found an Afghan child singing - phonetically - 'Sesame Street'. In Pakistan I broke bread with a one-time dope-smoking Catholic who converted to Islam and became an imam - because of Bob Dylan. And in Nepal – once considered the paradise at the end of the road – my bus was burnt out by Maoist guerrillas and martial law declared.
One of the most poignant – and moving - experiences happened to me in Afghanistan. I had decided to fly over a dangerous stretch of the trail after a UN aid worker was killed by 'remnant Taliban elements'. Unexpectedly our aircraft was diverted to Bagram, a central hub in the US military's five global commands. Because of security concerns I – and my fellow passengers - were forced to spend the night at the sprawling air base, along with 15,000 of the one million Americans maintained at arms in 137 countries on four continents. As the sun set beyond the Hindu Kush we were fed Whoopers and Personal Pan Pizzas. Then for a nightcap we were ushered into the Cat's Meow MWR tent, an ersatz Cheers bar with a glowing Michelob sign, dance floor and the acrid smell of spilt beer and dank fries. I was talking about my journey, and the Sixties' dream of building a better world, when the bartender let on that a 'hippie evening' had been held there the previous month. He produced a cardboard box of beads, bells and Beatles wigs. One aid worker stretched a plastic flower headband over her head. A helicopter engineer pulled a leopard-spot miniskirt up over her work overalls. Someone put Age of Aquarius on the Wurlitzer. Suddenly everyone was dancing, wearing buckskin, paisley shirts and John Lennon granny glasses. Do-gooders and door gunners spun on tiptoes. Aid managers and Sergeants First Class sang along to the music. A US Special Forces commando held a single plastic flower in his fist. We were intoxicated, relaxed, letting down our hair – at least those of us who still had hair – and for one exquisite moment we allowed wide-eyed, youthful exuberance to sweep aside our rational scepticism. Then, four minutes and 48 seconds after it began, the song ended. The music stopped. We stood self-consciously at the centre of the tent. We slipped off the wigs and rose-tinted glasses and retreated to our tables. Beyond the door the 455th Air Expeditionary Group launched an A-10 Thunderbolt II patrol into the dusk.
In the Sixties young Westerners grew up with the world. They came of age during a period of political and social revolution, in parallel with the space race, in step with the banishing of borders by Boeing and pregnancy by the Pill. The concurrence of historical events and individual lives convinced them that by changing themselves they could change the planet. But their sense of shared destiny didn't open the gates to nirvana.
In my journey and book, I searched for links between the Beats and the Beatles, karma and Coca-Cola, transcendence and terrorism. I may have missed out on the Summer of Love. I may mourn the passing of an easier, more trusting age. But the breezy unorthodoxy of those optimistic years has helped me to find my way onto a new road, living both in the moment and in the mind, striving to understand – and to express – how it feels to be alive today.
Rory MacLean, author of Falling for Icarus, talks to us about ‘Making Things’ from igloos and muffins to more recently websites and aeroplanes!
I’ve always made things. As a child I pasted together a cardboard world atlas, inventing the places which lay between the few countries I knew. In my father’s workshop I cobbled together a crystal radio and an electric illusion box which magically filled an empty aquarium with goldfish and a vase with flowers. One summer I conjured up a voyageur’s north woods canoe from an old pram. That winter I made three igloos and linked them with battery-powered telegraph sounders. Aged eleven I built a bedside control panel, resplendent with silver switches and dancing ohm meters, which turned on the television, opened the curtains and even eavesdropped on conversations in the kitchen. Perhaps practical skills were part of a Canadian childhood, a throw-back to a time long before the internet and even mail-order catalogues, when settlers either Made Do or froze to death. Or perhaps they were simply my impulse to make something where before there had been nothing.
Writing books springs from the same need. When I first moved to Britain, to pound away at typewriter keys in the metaphorical cold-water garret, I dealt with the disappointment of rejection letters by baking muffins. Chunky Apple and Raisin never failed to lift my spirits, increase my word count and expand my waistline. Honey Bran proved to be the best cure for writers’ block.
I took up travel writing not only to get out of the kitchen. Travelling gave me the opportunity to fill in the gaps in my cardboard atlas; writing about those gaps enabled me to people the map. And being handy proved to be invaluable along the road. In the course of researching Stalin’s Nose I adjusted the points and timing on my temperamental Trabant. While crossing Canada by boat for The Oatmeal Ark I made a prop guard for my out-board out of a naval tin hat. Now in my latest book Falling for Icarus I’ve taken to my limit the making of physical things.
A little under four years ago my mother died. When she took her last breath, and the swallows swept out from their nests under the eaves, I wanted to fly. The compulsion was the single clear certainty in my suddenly dislocated life. I convinced myself that to rise above my mourning I had to build an aeroplane. And I did it, though not by using a kit that could be assembled like an Ikea kitchen. Buying a kit felt to me like cheating. I needed to follow my own instruction book and to rebuild myself as I built the flying machine.
After my single, healing, terrifying flight I realised that most of my constructions (muffins apart) were about making – or finding and facilitating – connections between people. My books tell the stories of men and women who are separated by borders, fear, emigration, even time and death. In them I try to draw together their - and our - divided worlds. So it was natural for me to want to build a website and to establish connections.
Cyberspace would have been more easily navigated with a web designer but I, of course, wanted to build my own site. Twelve evenings at my local community college taught me more than I needed to know about meta tags and hyperlinks. Six weekends were required to write the ‘content’ and assemble the images. Then – with the click of a mouse – Winston the pig and Aunt Zita were online. The site is – I hope – clean, informative and a little cheeky. It works well I am told as a noticeboard and as a resource for journalists. Through it I’ve heard from aid-workers in Burma and academics at SOAS. Plus a helicopter ‘stress’ engineer, a brewer and two carpenters who shared my dream of building their own aeroplane. And a lovely couple from Surrey who, having read Next Exit Magic Kingdom, set out to follow my route around Florida (yikes, I haven’t heard back from them yet!).
Much more importantly, the site has created a small community. I write a regular newsletter for visitors who add their name to my mailing list. With them I share the process of research and writing, the emotion of creating a first draft and the mercifully more analytical editing stage, as well as announcing up-coming events and radio programmes. On line we’ve debated the roots of terrorism, considered those must-have travel essentials and even discussed my toddler’s tendency to blow raspberries in his porridge. One aspect of book writing which drives me potty is finding a title. So last year I threw open the challenge. I asked my subscribers for suggestions and, although in the end Falling for Icarus came to me in the bath, it was the 126 odd responses (and some were very odd indeed) which fired my imagination.
The web has not simply satisfied my DIY tendencies. More vitally it has opened new channels of communication and created a community, rather more effectively than my icy telegraph sounders or first crystal radio. It has enabled me to reach – and to be reached by – readers.
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