Adam Nicolson grew up in Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, the family home of his grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and journalist-turned-statesman Harold Nicolson. His father, Nigel , was also a writer (Portrait of a Marriage) and a Virginia Woolf scholar. Adam was educated at Eton and at Magdalene College at Cambridge, and he became a travel writer and won the Somerset Maugham Award for Frontiers, a book about a journey through Eastern Europe. In the mid-eighties, Nicolson founded Toucan Books, and he has also done journalism at a number of publications. He is the author of Wetland Life in the Somerset Levels, Restoration: The Rebuilding of Windsor Castle, Sea Room, Perch Hill: A New Life, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James, and recently Seamanship: A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles, which was originally a British television show, and Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar. Nicolson and his family have foregone living on small beef-and-sheep farm in Sussex to return to the patrimonial castle at Sissunghurst.
Judging from his bibliography (and this chat) Adam Nicolson is mostly clearly an adventurous sort, if not your typical adventurer. With the intention of wanting to experience the feeling of being “a single hair on the world’s skin” he embarked on a 1500-mile sea voyage up the British Isles Atlantic coast on a 47-foot wooden boat, The Auk. The result is an eminently readable and unpretentious account of both the inner and the outer journeys and the unsurprising conclusion that this experience was for Adam Nicolson not so much about sailing as about living.
Robert Birnbaum: “Nicolson.” That’s a prestigious and well-known English name. Are you related to the—
Adam Nicolson: Well, I’m not related to the painter, but my dad was called Nigel and my grandfather Harold. And so I am one of those Nicolsons.
RB: Will you be writing a family memoir also?
AN: I think my family is the most memoired family in the history of the universe. It’s like a disease. “No” is definitely the answer to that. Do you think I should?
RB: Uh, no.
RB: Do you have occasion to be asked what you do? Or what you are? What your profession is?
AN: Yeah—and what do I say? I say I am a writer. And then they say, “More.” And I say, “I write for newspapers. And I write books. History books and travel books. And I made a TV series last year and want to make more. That’s what I do.” But people do say, “Have you never had a job?” [laughs] And I always say, “No.”
RB: In Britain, writing seems to occupy a different stature than in the U.S. It’s more likely to be accepted as a career or profession.
AN: My take on it is that this country actually has a much richer middle ground than we do. It has the kind of middle ground which can move into academia, journalism, serious writing—even politics and business. There is a constellation of things that people are quite happy to elide the boundaries between those things. I don’t think we have that in England.
RB: What is the Grub Street tradition?
AN: Right. [laughs] Grub Street is hack journalism. That’s just scrawling it out to make some money. It doesn’t have the dignity that’s in the American middle ground.
RB: In this country it’s perceived as doing any kind of writing—not necessarily attaching hackdom to it.
AN: We have a completely different perspective on this. One of the symptoms of this . . . I was talking to Simon Winchester, and he has a kind of standing in this country as a writer of serious popular books. But in England he doesn’t get treated in anything like the same way—at all.
AN: In England people think of him as a sort of hack, a Grub Streeter who slightly pretentiously has moved himself into grander territory.
RB: Wow. How do his books sell in England?
RB: That explains it.
AN: It certainly explains why he is living in Manhattan. And his life is here. He and I talked about this. The American middle-ground culture, particularly on the coasts, is alive and well in a way that has disintegrated in England. We have academic dried seriousness. Desiccated seriousness. Or a kind of tabloid vulgarity, and we don’t have these middle-ground writers.
RB: How do you look at the great fiction writers?
AN: Who are they compared to the Americans right now? Where is the English Don DeLillo? Or even Franzen? Or anyone? Where are they? I don’t think they exist. Rushdie—
RB: —I was going say—
AN: —McEwan maybe—
RB: Ishiguru’s new book is getting attention. And Martin Amis will always get attention. But not necessarily for his writing.
AN: For his teeth. Well there is undoubtedly a whole clutch of those writers—about four or five of them, and they all emerged about twenty-five years ago—
RB: Nick Hornby?
RB: Or that younger group. Or what about the Scots?
AN: Perhaps in fiction it’s different. I’m talking about nonfiction. If you go to book shops here it’s extremely ordinary—the kind of density and volume of middle-ground nonfiction that is out there in the shops. It’s phenomenal, isn’t it? It’s a painful experience going in to bookshops. [laughs]
RB: Well certainly in newspaper book sections, nonfiction rules the roost.
AN: I think it is peaking. I was looking in the airport, in the bookstore there. Books no longer have the straight title. It no longer says The First World War or The Civil War or something like that. It says something like The Value of Courage: America’s Coming of Age in the 1860s. Everything is inflected and secondary with a commentary on the fact. The fact has just been written out. Everything is a rerun. Don’t you think that’s true? The titles have gone weird, haven’t they?
RB: Why even review a book anymore? All the commentary is in the subtitle.
AN: These subtitles—I am guilty of it, too.
RB: When we were talking about what you do or what you are, you were unabashed about referring to yourself as a travel writer. I thought of Jonathan Raban, who hates being categorized in that way. You assign no stigma to being seen in that way?
AN: I know what you are talking about. But the larger point is a sort of vanity point. Vanity is the great enemy, [laughs] isn’t it? Well, there are many enemies out there, but it is certainly circling, and I think one should be absolutely brave to say, “I’m a reporter. I’m a travel writer. I am a hack writer. I churn it out when required. I’ve paid for my children’s lives. This is the way I do it. I do all right by history. And travel.” Why not say that? Anyway the label is completely irrelevant isn’t it? It’s a sign on Raban’s part. And then he has a weird tenderness. He’s an extremely tender man, isn’t he? And a lack of self-belief really. You can’t carry the title. Of course he is a travel writer, what else is he?
AN: He’s a writer who travels.
RB: Someone, whom I cannot now recall to attribute, said, “All writing is travel writing.”
AN: I wrote a book about the King James Bible, and I have just written another about the Battle of Trafalgar and the whole heroic idea in the nineteenth century. And definitely both those history books are written as if by a travel writer, i.e., by a curious ignoramus who arrives in a strange land and says, “Hey what’s going in here? And who are you? And what do you have to say? And how different are you? And what can you tell me?” It’s a great template, a great—what people would call—a paradigm, isn’t it?
RB: Perhaps his discomfort stems from going into bookstores and finding his books shelved with other books that are not congenial to him? I don’t know.
AN: Homer is a travel writer. [laughs] Another thing about it is that the travel writer is necessarily humiliated by his subject. And that is a great starting place. Not, “Hi, I am a writer. I am arriving and going to smack this subject a round the face and see what it has to say.” But, “Hello you seem great.” It’s going to deliver more, isn’t it?
RB: You do have a curious way of asking me questions. Aren’t I supposed to be doing the interrogating?
AN: [laughs] Whatever. It’s a conversation.
RB: Why title your book Seamanship?
AN: I didn’t want this to be a travel book. [both laugh] And it was very difficult to know what to title it.
RB: What were the other candidates?
AN: I don’t know if I can remember now. [pause] The genesis of this book is bad and wrong. To be honest. I actually wanted to write a much bigger book about the Atlantic Shore called The Outer Shore—about the place the western coastline plays or has played in British and European imagination. It’s Far West; it’s the outermost place. It’s the end of Europe. It was always going to be confined to western British Isles—but much more about the ways in which different cultures historically and geographically confront this big ocean. And different permutations of the way in which either as wreckers or as peasant farmers or monks and all the rest—an enormously but coherent group of different responses. I thought it would be a really interesting thing to do that. And I didn’t write that book for the worst possible reasons—which [is] the television series that we made while doing this [the actual voyage] was going to come out, and so the publisher said, “You’ve got to produce a book in time for the TV series.”
RB: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that the act of observation changes what is being observed. Doesn’t that apply to things that we do and then write about? You didn’t do this sea voyage and then write about it?
AN: I did actually.
RB: With the knowledge that you were going to write about it?
AN: Yes I did.
RB: Originally it was a TV show?
AN: Originally it was a book and I ran out of money, and so then—originally I spent two years sitting at writing about . . . the book was called God’s Secretaries . . . doing that in a room. It doesn’t involve other people. It’s lonely. You know what it’s like. And I just wanted a breath of fresh air and needed it. And so while doing that book I had on my wall a chart of this western shore, and so the primary motivation was to live a bit. To be there. But of course the way to pay for that is by writing a book about it. And so the idea was to write a book. And so then I got the boat, ran out of money and thought, “Well, the thing to do is to try to get a TV crew in here and they will basically pay for the rest of the journey.” And that’s what happened. It is a layered thing. The primacy of lived life gets pretty eroded by your Heisenberg arriving, and I am going totally distort it. [laughs]
RB: If I read correctly, you weren’t always on the boat as it proceeded the 1500 miles?
AN: I wasn’t on it for the return, but I was on it on the way. Both George Fairhurst [the captain] and I went home to our women. We were away for two- or three-week lumps of time, and then we would come home and they would come up. This book is such a tiny fragment really—I can imagine if the publicity person Jane Biern was sitting here—
RB: She speaks highly of you.
AN: I think wonderfully of her. She is a tremendous person. If she was sitting here listening to me talk, she would get the machine gun out. I can justify the way that this book is done, as follows: It’s an experiment really—to see if I could write a book that took only the middle of a journey. The thing that is wrong with most journey books is that they are vastly overstuffed with themselves. The idea behind this book, given the circumstances in which I had to write it, were that you could take a fine line through that thick and clotted multifarious mass of the journey and trace an evolution of the self, in a way. That’s really what it’s about. You strip away stuff. You are left with quite a naked and candid exploration of how a man in the middle of his life reacts and evolves over a year in which he has decided to do that to himself. And I think is really the subject of the book, which, to return to your question of a quarter of an hour ago, is why it is called Seamanship. “Seamanship” of the title refers to the necessary skills of navigating a life. As much as the sea.
RB: What books did you take with you to read?
AN: I had the Odyssey and the Iliad. There were marvelous books about the British seas, the hydrography and all that.
RB: You mentioned a book by D. H. Lawrence.
AN: Yes, a Lawrence book about American literature.
RB: The citation for that book really reverberated.
Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community active, in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some Wild West. The most unfree souls go West and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was . . .
AN: I was reading it in that monastery, and the thing was just like a great clanging bell—a moment of terrible realization that the entire motivation for this sort of thing which men do, have done, and will do forever and a day, is totally misguided. Sort of self-hobbling. Self-manacling. He talks about chains doesn’t he? It’s about shaking the—
RB: —the shouts of freedom—
AN: Just the rattling of chains. It’s true isn’t it? That is a victory of womanhood, I think.
RB: [laughs] Perhaps it’s a modern day affectation where we try to convince ourselves of our self-awareness. When in the history of man were we more self-aware? We know everything about ourselves?
AN: Do we? [laughs]
AN: What troubled me about it is that the lesson of that remark is so conservative. I thought of myself as a liberal person, basically more interested in freedom than in order—that is the great choice in life. And here was this thing clanging at me saying, “It’s order, Adam, it’s order.”
RB: I was surprised to see Lawrence as an advocate of community. It is made slightly mysterious by talking about continually striving for some unrealized thing. What could that be?
AN: There is also connection—what he is talking about is the organic organism and the connected. The community as a felt reality, all these Laurentian things. Not as against the self willed isolated Renaissance Cartesian prick. [laughs]
RB: Hmm, all right. You’ve written at least one other book about sailing, yes?
AN: I have, yes. It’s not really about sailing. It’s called Sea Room. It’s about some small islands in the Hebrides, which I own. Well, I don’t; I’ve given them to my son now.
RB: Oh, what will he do with them? Start an amusement park?
AN: He’s going to install a generator and get the sky dish in and settle in with a few beers for a year or two.
RB: Have you had your fill of sailing?
AN: In some ways I have. I want to go up to the Arctic to do the Arctic Atlantic; I had an idea to do a TV series about the monsoon. But you’re right—in some ways I have had enough. Especially this big boat sailing—way out there, ocean sailing. It’s a great big clumsy way of being in the world.
RB: This is The Auk on the cover?
AN: Yeah, that’s it.
RB: I thought it would be more—
AN: Fat? You can’t really see. I’ve sold it. [laughs] It’s gone.
RB: And the TV series—you don’t mention much about it?
AN: It’s a completely dysfunctional book isn’t it? [both laugh]
RB: I’m okay with it. Who needs a book that tells you everything?
AN: I love that kind of slight and fragmented—I’ll come back to your question—but that is an important question: that my intention is that the slightness of it is suggestive. But most people don’t read it like that. They read it as held-back and unsatisfactory, but because it doesn’t do the ABC. All it does is hint and suggest and all of that.
RB: Maybe those readers are looking for the paradigmatic sailing book. I have only read two books that have to do with open sea sailing: Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach and—
AN: That’s based on a real British sailor—
RB: —I read Raban’s Journey to Juneau.
AN: It was a great production. His father dies in the middle, his wife left him, and it’s all a kind of anti-Odyssey. Penelope kicks him out at the end, and it ends with him taking all of his stuff downstairs.
RB: I did like his book, but I have no great affinity for sea stories. I like being by the sea.
AN: The thing that will remain for ever with me is how really horrible it can be.
RB: You do go on about how sick you became.
AN: Even in the horrible, you pull on yourself and make it happen, and that was a good educational experience.
RB: Why would you not want to sail the South Pacific, for example? Wouldn’t that be more pleasant?
AN: I’m too fat as it is. [laughs]
RB: Really, there are far more pleasant and less arduous places.
AN: There are few pleasures greater in life than a really good dose of self-hatred. [laughs]
RB: You’re freezing, vomiting—
AN: It’s a precious place to be—I like austerity; and the other thing about it is that if it’s horrible, there are unlikely to be other people there. And that itself is a kind of revealing position to be in. Especially when it’s going very well in the hard place. Sometimes when a boat is so properly tuned and you are properly in tune with it and really going—in a difficult sea, miles out—that is a kind of ecstasy. Are you a mountain person, a mountain climber?
RB: Uh, no.
AN: I used to be when I was young.
RB: Quite the adventurer. I was struck by the temptation to impose something grand and universal about sea journeys and seemed to me that it’s very specific and ineffable. You write what happened and give schemata, but there are leaps that one has to make, and guesses.
AN: Part of the reason why that is: I wrote the book in three weeks. It’s a very short book. There’s that French remark—
RB: Like Jefferson’s quip, “I would have written shorter if I had more time . . .”
AN: The leaving of gaps is a description of the truth. It is. You know how fat books are now. Especially biographies. You look at it and you think that is not going to tell me what is what, is it? And I don’t know whether it works in this book, but definitely the motive is slightness, and, in a way, reduction. Which is germane to this kind of shore. It’s a route to revelation.
RB: If that question isn’t rhetorical, had it been a larger book I would have been lost—I don’t care about a lot of details about sailing. I found I was given very much the kind of thing I wanted as someone who is not a seaman.
AN: I intend it to be quite generous in that way. It is not that I am the man at sea—I’m obviously so not. I hadn’t read the Odyssey until I went on this thing. And the Odyssey is like that. It has extraordinary holes in it. And Odysseus is not a hero. He is deeply and appallingly fallible. Again and again he is failing. The whole thing is driven not by a desire to go out there and dominate the world, but to get home, to get into bed with his wife.
RB: The book’s conceit seems to be this is a metaphor for life. That’s a burden I would think you would want to quickly shake off. I don’t see it that way, but I would think that many readers would claim that for you.
AN: Inevitably, the whole sea journey is a metaphor for life. You just can’t, living in the linguistic world—
RB: What activity isn’t?
RB: Motorcycle maintenance.
AN: Very good. I loved that book. This book, you can see it coming after that book. That book, too, is about looking after things. It’s about maintaining those sweet details, and really the only sense in which this book is about that subject is that it did definitely educate me. And it doesn’t need to be any grander than that. I do have a fear of grandeur. Or an abhorrence of it.
RB: The kind of aftershock or ripple effect of books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is that we become more an more self-conscious about everything and assigning a grandeur to it.
AN: Well, this is the subtitle—it is, which is afflicting: nothing is itself. It’s all a reflection on the grander themes of human existence, in the most banal way. But on the other side of that, you can say, the good thing about being at sea in a storm, one of the delights of the horrible is that—
RB: It’s self-liquidating?
AN: Yeah. You have to attend to what is. You have to make sure you are doing the physical, objective stuff, and the metavoyage—whatever anyone would call it now—can go hang. [laughs]
RB: You wrote this in three weeks. Were you taking notes as you went along?
AN: I took some notes. But I largely did it. It’s a very nice way to write a book. My father said to me years and years ago the way to write a book is to research long and write fast and revise long. And that is exactly how I did this. The whole year is a form of research—mucking about really. And then I wrote it very, very quickly in some passion, and it’s exciting to do that. It makes writing into like a ski . . . like a black run—don’t stop. I wrote like that and revised it much more slowly. And I hope it has those qualities of, at least, this is a chunk of lived life. And it’s as if I am just telling you, “And then this and what about that?” Because that makes it readable; it’s not heavy.
RB: You were going tell me about the television series.
AN: It’s been on British TV and—eight half hours from England, Wales, West Ireland, Hebrides, Orkney, the Faeroes. It was great fun. But it was totally destructive of the deeper elements. But it was fantastic; I loved it.
RB: You said you wanted to do more. What about it is so much fun?
AN: It’s social. And writing isn’t. [laughs]
RB: You don’t mind giving up control of your project?
AN: I don’t care about control. I am so not interested in control. I really am not.
RB: Apparently not, since you let someone else skipper your boat.
AN: I am sure you can and I can paint myself in a pretty black light about this—what George calls me, “a plucker.”
RB: And you are still friends.
RB: What does that say about him? He’s very tolerant?
AN: He’s such an intolerant man. [laughs] That’s just rubbish. The whole experience for him was really devastatingly dreadful. [both laugh]
RB: He chides himself for not being a good teacher.
AN: Yeah, that’s right. That’s quite big, isn’t it? [laughs] There’s nothing I can tell you don’t know already, but it wasn’t good for him. The TV thing. He was left behind and I was just having a whale of a time. It’s just great fun and they just bring it on.
RB: I’ve done some shoots, and it can get quite familial and like a band of brothers.
AN: Yeah. It’s very emotional, and it’s sad when you leave. And the irony of that, of course, is that is exactly what George hoped, and I hoped, in the beginning that would develop between me and him.
RB: Hasn’t it?
AN: It has in a way, but in an inflected way. It’s not a clean, “We were there, we did it. We’re close.” It isn’t like that, quite. Because there was a conflict of authority between us and between the TV crew and him, and I sided with the TV crew. I don’t emerge from this book honorably, I think.
RB: Hmm. So what do you intend to do next? The Trafalgar book?
AN: I’ve done that. That’s out soon.
RB: Wasn’t there a huge Nelson biography recently?
AN: Edgar Vincent? Is that right. Really good. Six hundred pages—beautifully done though. A guy who was an accountant . . . and spent ten years writing this book. It’s a very perceptive book. My book isn’t about Nelson—it’s about a code of honor among officers and what it means in early nineteenth-century England. So, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, to be honest. I am just hanging fire.
RB: What does that mean in American?
AN: Is that not an American expression?
RB: Like hanging tough?
AN: No, no. It’s when you cock the pistol, pull the trigger, and the hammer stays up—and so it hasn’t gone down; it’s a Nelsonian expression. But I don’t know what to do. I have various ideas floating around. I have been writing books absolutely solidly for seven or eight years and wanted a break because it takes it out of you. I was really drained at the end of writing the Trafalgar book. A lot research and archives—
AN: I went to Greenwich, the national archives in London, county records—all that knd of stuff. I did crew on a French square-rigger for three weeks to try to get some of the reality of what square-rig life was like. That was fantastic. Have you—oh, you’re not a sea person. But it was really wonderful. I think I’d like to write a book about the twentieth century next.
RB: It seems to me that the British appreciate history where Americans are, at best, indifferent
AN: Are they? God. I went to a bookstore this morning; it’s thick with history.
RB: The existence of history books doesn’t mean much for the culture at large. David McCullough seems to sell.
AN: Do you think there are too many books?
AN: There are so many.
RB: It can be frightening—I look at the books in my possession and it’s unlikely that I will get to read all of them. But I frequently don’t know which I will read next, and I am very much comforted by their presence.
AN: I did an interview yesterday in Washington and the producer asked me the best question I have ever been asked, which was, “Tell me, Adam, are your children human?” [both laugh uproariously] One of the most wonderful questions anyone could be asked. [laughs]
RB: Well, it’s great fun to do this, and once one has validated oneself by reading the book in question—
AN: We’re so grateful, it’s really nice—
RB: —anything is fair game.
AN: The best I ever had was a radio station in England where I turned up for an interview, and on the studio door there was little Post-It saying, “Very sorry, just had to pop out. Do you think you could interview yourself? And I’ll just drop the questions in after.” [laughs]
RB: Any wish to write fiction?
AN: No. A long time ago I sort of tried, but not at all rigorously—I get a kind of stage fright when it’s not real, sort of vertigo. If anything is possible, then you [I] can’t do anything at all. And I don’t think I can do that. I wish I could, and I feel totally in awe of novelists. It’s an incredible thing, what they do. And it is absolutely another level, out and up. Poets too.
RB: Even the bad ones.
AN: Even the bad ones—just the chutzpah to say, “This is my world I’m making up and damn the lot of you.” And to stay rigorous with it. I wouldn’t be able to do it. Not in the writing—I can do that, but in the framing of it.
RB: The book’s dust jacket says you live in a castle.
AN: I wish they hadn’t put that on there. [both laugh] It’s going to come off every book from now on. This is my grandparents’, and my father died last year and so we went to live in his house—and that’s what it is.
RB: A big castle?
AN: It’s not really a castle. A brick house—it was a manor house. It’s like a French house in a funny way. It was called a castle because in the nineteenth century everything got called “castle” that was old.
RB: Do you intend to live in England for the rest of your days?
AN: I’d like to live in America. I feel more at home in here than I do in England. I am bored of England stodginess. And there is so much greater sense of possibility here.
RB: Even for someone like you, who appears to have the ability to do what you want?
AN: I don’t know what it is—it’s the cup half-full, half-empty cliché. I think the English tend to look at the empty. And the Americans tend to look at the full.
RB: I had the sense that American pessimism had caught up with the rest of the world since the declaration of war on Terror. It’s a stranger time in this country.
AN: I was just in New York for two days and walking up and down Madison Avenue, as one does, it seemed to me [that] the thing it reminded me of was Edwardian England. England in 1910. A global empire. An extraordinarily rich ruling class utterly in possession of its own sense of significance while not at all quivering on the brink of global terror or anything like that—but just, “Here we are. This is what we do. This is how we make money. We are extraordinarily cultivated. We fund any number of cultural . . .”
RB: You believe that? It appears that way, right?
AN: There is that specter of Madison Avenue hovering in the wings, of course I know that. And of course I know there are great swathes of America, which are wrong—of course I know that. But can we talk about this on different levels. As far as my own life is concerned, I can imagine coming here for a while. I wrote a book with Dad years ago when he was in the eastern half and I was in the western half. And we wrote to each other every day. And I spent all my time in Montana and Utah and New Mexico and Arizona. And I just got completely swept up in the idea I was going to be a cowboy and have a ranch and be like Tom McGuane.
RB: Did you meet Tom?
AN: Yes I did. Do you know that man? Isn’t he a cool man?
RB: A funny guy.
AN: Very funny Such a good writer. What a great model for life. In England it is so parochial. Maybe it’s a question of scale. America has such an expansiveness.
RB: That’s right. I just drove from Boston to Chicago and back, and [with my top down] when I got to Indiana, the flatness of it provided an incredible horizon. One could really see far in all directions. Living in the East I had forgotten that. I suppose that’s part of being called “New England.” Where would you live if you moved here?
AN: I would love to go to the Rockies. I went for a walk in Colorado last year and was amazed by the scale of those forests.
RB: Lots of writers living a good life out there.
AN: We watch A River Runs Through It weekly. [both laugh]
RB: Well, thank you very much.
AN: It’s been lovely to talk with you.
© 2005 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing