An evening with Simon Winchester

on 23 Feb 2016 

We might be a bit off the beaten track here in south-western Australia, but we're lucky in Albany at least to enjoy occasional visits from distinguished guests. 

I was privileged on Sunday evening to meet in the Albany Town Hall with British author Simon Winchester for a chat about his new book 'Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers'. This was the opening event for the Perth Writers' Festival in the Great Southern, a component of the Perth International Arts Festival.

Simon Winchester's has been an extraordinary life, and the breadth of topics covered in his many historical non-fiction books is eclectic and vast. Never more so than in 'Pacific'.  As everywhere, colonisation has not been kind to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, and the opening chapter recounting what has happened to the Marshall Islanders is particularly harrowing. 

Leavened by chapters on lighter topics including the birth of surfing out of the long-established 'wave-riding' passtime of indigenous Hawaiian royalty (which they practised naked on wooden boards up to 21 feet long!) the book takes us on a rollicking journey that traverses the sacking of Gough Whitlam, the sinking of the QEII in Hong Kong's harbour, coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, increasingly stormy global weather that is born out of the Pacific, and the redistribution of world power from America to China, among many other subjects.

The conservation story of the recovery of the North Pacific's Short-Tailed Albatross that has taken place largely on southern Japan's Torishima Island is one of the more optimistic tales of change. And the book's Epilogue that covers the Polynesian Voyaging Society's traditional twin-hulled Hawaiian wa'a or voyaging canoe that is circumnavigating the globe at present to help 'grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world' is likewise a story of hope. 

Having grown up on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island in Whakatane, the landing-place in Aotearoa of the waka Mata-atua ('Eye of God'), one of those great Polynesian voyaging canoes, it's a story that really resonated for me.

Away from the event, Simon and I spent a bit of time together. Having graduated originally in Geology from Oxford University, he was fascinated by a part of the earth's surface that's been essentially undisturbed for 250 million years, and by the conservation project we're involved with here in Gondwana Link.  He seemed genuinely reluctant to leave.  Who knows – he may be back some time to tell some of our stories ...