Zinsser on Friday

At Ease in the Stone Age

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By William Zinsser

May 28, 2010


 

I think of Norman Lewis as the best travel writer of our times, and in 1995, when a travel magazine asked me to go to England to interview him, I didn’t lose any time getting on the plane. Lewis was then 87 and had just come home from a journey through three of the most hostile regions of Indonesia that concluded with a stay in a Stone Age village in the mountains of New Guinea. I wanted to catch him before he took off again.

I was introduced to Lewis’s first two books–A Dragon Apparent, about Indo-China, and Golden Earth, about Burma–in the early 1950s, steered to them by his fierce admirer S. J. Perelman, another writer besotted with Southeast Asia. Trailing Lewis to remote jungle settlements where most travel writers would dearly love not to go, I found myself in the company of a man with all-seeing eyes and no regard for his own comfort or safety. He had a deep interest in indigenous peoples and their threatened way of life; a sense of imminent loss hovers over his work. He moved among those ethnic tribes with intuitive ease, often in moments of considerable danger. What kept him alive, I think, was a gift for finding amusement in the routine outlandishness of life, which drained the worst situations of their terror. That dry humor also runs through his writing style.

Now I was in the picture-postcard town of Finchingfield, an hour north of London, where Lewis had long lived–between trips–with his wife, Lesley. It was perfect English weather–rainy and cold–and their house was perfectly English in its lack of central heating. Lewis led me to the one room that he claimed had some heat, and we settled down to talk. After a few minutes he stood up. “I’m going to take my jacket off,” he said. “It’s frightfully hot in here. Do you feel too warm?” I assured him that I had never felt too warm in England.

Talking with this civilized man in the prim English countryside, I thought of the vast distance separating him from the aboriginal people he had befriended in the jungles of Asia and Latin America, and I wondered what qualities of mind had gone into closing that gap.

“I’ve found that in the whole gamut of society,” Lewis said, “people have many similarities. Recently, when I was in a Stone Age village in Irian Jaya, I met a man who had learned a little English from the missionaries. I’ve noticed that when native people have close connections with white people, their faces start to change. As I looked at this man I could see the sharp-faced boy who lives in the East End of London, and I said, ‘If I had come here 10 years ago, what would have happened to me?’ He said, ‘We would have eaten you.’ But he knew it was funny, and we both laughed at that. That man is living more than 20,000 years back from you and me–back in the mists of the origin of mankind–and yet he had a recognizable sense of humor. And I knew he would. If you’re in this profession a staggering number of years you gradually develop a set of muscles for these things. You have to, in order to survive. I practically know what people are thinking if I try very hard.”

[See “A Gene for Adventure,” by William Zinsser, Travel Holiday magazine, March 1996.]


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.

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