Things I write about #2: quests (endless)

Frankin's Lighting Rods

I’ve been drawn, since I first started writing I think, to the idea of the endless quest, the uncompletable project. I’m not sure why. And I often don’t realise it’s happening. It’s only later, when the story is lying around in pieces around my desk and I’m beginning to assemble it that I recognise the shape of the narrative that has been there all along. It’s very easy to conclude that there is something sad in an endless quest. Sisyphus had a shitty deal. But when I spend time with people, or communities, who seem to have an infinite project in front of them, I rarely encounter a sense of futility, or despair. In fact, it’s often the opposite. One of the first endless quest stories I wrote was for The New York Times about a man called Walter Grutchfield, who has spent his retirement walking, and re-walking, midtown Manhattan, mapping and cataloguing all the fading signs — “the ghost signs” — of a century of closed businesses, high on the weather bleached bricks. Walter didn’t think that he was doing anything futile. The impossibility of what he was trying to do, the fact that he would never be done, was not a source of anxiety, or melancholia. It was, of course, a comfort, a purpose, scaffolding for a life.

My favourite endless endeavour is Clive Craik’s. In 1990, Craik began trying to protect the sea bird populations of western Scotland from the predations of escaped American mink, which were imported to the UK in the 1920s to set up fur farms. Every year since then, Craik has patrolled 1,500 breeding sites, trapping mink, counting eggs, a vigilante in the wilderness. In 2008, when I wrote the story, he was contemplating how long he could continue the fight:

Nineteen years (four cars, three boats, half a million miles at the wheel) later, age has become the deciding factor for Craik. Soon, it will stop him. Although sturdy and fit – he runs every day during the winter – Craik can only single-handedly launch his boat and lug the 36kg (80lb) outboard motor across wet beaches for a few more summers. Two years ago, he believes he escaped death by a 50-50 chance when he was thrown across his boat (rather than out of it) when he let go of the tiller.

But age compels him too. On my second morning in Argyll we visited Craik’s office, a curiosity case of mink skulls, gnawed eggs and books on coastal navigation. He sat at his desk and said that his quest to save the breeding colonies had become ultimately personal and aesthetic; and that it felt more, rather than less, urgent as time passed. “That is the driving force: beauty,” he said. “The loss of beauty that is so sad.”

But you can’t be naive about the power of the consuming project, the dominating obsession. Earlier this year, Harper’s published the biggest piece of reporting I’ve done, which was the story of Jude Le Grice, a tree worker and opera singer who was prosecuted for stalking and locked up in psychiatric wards for the best part of a decade. In Jude’s case, the quest was only ever chivalric. It was only ever impossible. And it became the vortex into which the rest of his life, and his family, fell.

Maybe it’s obvious why I like writing about impossible projects. They have an inherent tension: the weight of passion against the weight of reason. And we are naturally interested by obsession, I think — by the idea of someone being captivated. Because ultimately we all wish to be captivated by something, or someone. (But not captured). I also wonder, though, whether there is a relationship between the endless quest and the project of writing and reporting about the world, with its impossibility, its futility, the assurance that we will never get to the end. Here are four articles about impossible projects:

So many signs, so little time,” The New York Times, 4/7/2004
Walter Grutchfield and the ephemera of signage.

The birdman of Barcaldine,” FT, 19/7/2008
Saving Scotland’s seabirds from the marauding mink

Let there be lightning,” FT, 21/8/2010
The quest to understand lightning

A God more powerful than I,” Harper’s, 1/2/2014
Understanding a stalker’s love