Speech by Mr. Simon Winchester
2012 S.E.A.Write Guest Speaker
Click to listen to Speech by Mr. Simon Winchester (9 Nov 2012)
9 November 2012 at Royal Ballroom, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
Simon Winchester’s Keynote Address/2012 S.E.A. Write Awards Presentation & Gala Dinner
What I would like to do for the next few moments is to describe my particular journey into the business of writing books. All 8 of the awardees here have come to the profession of writing in different ways as indeed has Her Royal Highness. Each of our journeys are unique. Mine I think is particularly so because so much of it relies on the kindness of strangers on good luck and good fortune; and I thought that by telling the story it might inspire some of you who might be thinking still of becoming writers or might have children who are so thinking that with luck and good fortune it is possible for someone without any background in writing to become a member of what I think is an extraordinary and rather noble profession.
I wanted to be a sailor when I was a youngster and I had this idea that sometime at the culmination of my career I’d be a sailor in the Royal Navy; I’d be wearing crisp, white tropical shorts and I’d be commanding an aircraft carrier somewhere putting down small wars in corners of our ever diminishing empire. So I took all the exams to go to the Royal Navy College known as Dartmouth in southwest England. Everything went extremely well until the final day, I was 17 years old, when I went for my medical examination and the doctor opened a book with glossy pages each one with a circle on it with coloured dots inside it. He said to me “Mr. Winchester what number do you see in that first circle?” Without missing a beat I said, “23”. He said, “Really are you sure?” I said, “Yes, 23”. He said and he had an expression of some alarm on his face, turned to another page and said, “What number do you see here?”. I said “47”. He closed the book with a terrible finality and said, “Mr Winchester I’m terribly sorry to tell you that you’ll never be able to join the Royal Navy because you are red green colour blind, and Her Majesty takes a rather dim view of people who cannot tell red from green and therefore left from right driving her very expensive warships around the world, so you’ll have to think of another career for yourself.”
I was devastated but I clearly had some interest in or affection for the idea of men in shorts because when I got back to school I saw a picture of a man not in white tropical shorts but in Khaki shorts wielding a hammer in his hand, and it said “Travel the world; be a geologist” so I thought that sounds like a rather agreeable way to wander around the world . if I can’t go on ships, let’s try going around the world hitting rocks, so I applied to go to Oxford and they let me in and I took a degree in 1966 in Geology. I wasn’t terribly good at it. I got a degree and as you probably know degrees come in different levels; and the particular degree I had was known colloquially as a Desmond. Desmond is a play on words on the name of Desmond Tutu, the South African Archbishop, because it was a Two Two Second Class degree and the second tier of that class – well – at Oxford, and I dare say and at other Universities around the world, If you have a Two Two you are fit for nothing. I hope there are no Desmonds here today.. I had to go into what the British of course in those days in the 1960s regarded with great hostility and trepidation which was Trade/Commerce but not only Commerce but because it was such a bad degree, Commerce in the colonies. So I was sent off to, I got a job in Uganda, East Africa, working for a Canadian mining company called Falconbridge of Africa. I was given a Landrover and 25 Ugandans and material to build myself a tent. I was placed in the foothills of the ruins ory the mountains in Western Uganda on the border with the Congo and told essentially to go and find some copper and for 6 months I lived in this tent and I found not a milligram of copper, it was a complete disaster but I had the most wonderful time. What I was interested in was mountain climbing. I was on the slopes, the lowest slopes, of these remarkable and beautiful mountains, the ruins ory… I would climb them and I’d also get from the British Council, a great institution, any books I could find on the subject of mountain climbing.
On one particular day late in 1966 I picked from the shelves of the British Council library in a place called Fort Portal, a slim blue book called “Coronation Everest” by a man called James Morris. And I read this book at one sitting in my tent. It was so fascinating. It was the account by James Morris, who had been appointed the London Times correspondent in 1953 on the expedition that successfully got to the summit of Mount Everest, led by John Hunt et al, got to the summit on 31 May 1953. The remarkable thing about this thick book was twofold: James Morris who I had never heard of had never in his life climbed more than a 3,000 foothill. He was sent by the Times to cover this particular expedition and he climbed to 24,000 feet, a remarkable achievement for someone who had never climbed a mountain in his life. But the most remarkable achievement I think about this was using a very elaborate system of codes He managed to get the news of the success of the expedition back to London in time to be published in the Times of London on the morning of the 2nd of June 1953 which was the morning of HM the Queen’s Coronation. I remember very well indeed. I was 8 yrs old at that time and woke to a morning which was obviously a deliriously happy day for everyone because a new Queen was being crowned but also to add cream and jam on top of this the news had come in that a British expedition, a last Imperial Hurrah had got to the summit of the highest mountain in the world. So I read this book and I was astonished and delighted and decided in a moment, it was sort of like the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, that I didn’t want to be a sailor, I didn’t want to be a geologist but what I wanted to do was travel the world like this man James Morris did with a pen a notebook and become a writer.
And so with all the arrogance of youth, I sat at my table in my tent in Uganda that day, wrote a letter “James Morris Faber & Faber (his publishers), 3 Queen Square WC1 London, saying: Dear Mr. Morris, I’m a 21-year-old geologist living in East Africa, I have just read your book, can I be you? And you’d have thought he’d have completely ignored my request. But he didn’t – he wrote back two weeks later. I got a letter which said: Mr Winchester, if you are serious, if you really think you can be a writer, I promise you it is the most wonderful profession but it depends on whether or not you can write. If you think you can my advice to you is very simiple – come back to England, not next week not next month but the day you receive this letter, resign your job in Africa, get a plane back to England and get a job on a local newspaper and write to me again. Well I did exactly that. I went into the offices of Falconbridge mining company and said I was resigning. They were so pleased “Can we give you a car? Can we take you immediately to the BOAC flight which is leaving in just a few hours?”
The following morning, a rainy November day, I was back in London assuming that I would, with an Oxford degree and all the rest of it, easily get a job. Well no one wanted to know. With a geology degree I was completely useless to them. So for 6 months I worked on an oil rig in the North Sea, but all the time determined to get on to a newspaper. By this time I had started to read all of the books James Morris had produced on Venice, Spain on the British Empire, on Oxford. He was just the kind of writer I really wanted to be. After 6 months of persistence, eventually I got a job as a reporter on a newspaper in the North of England called The Newcastle Journal ; and I wrote to James Morris again: Dear Mr. Morris, thank you for the advice you gave me 6 months ago. Well I’ve done exactly as you’ve said. I’ve left Africa and I’m now working as a reporter, what now? You could sense in his reply (Gulp) You took my advice?!? He clearly didn’t expect that to happen. He said as I’ve given you that advice and that you’ve taken it I’ll give you three more pieces of advice:
No. 1: “Never lose your sense of wonder. You will as a writer go all over the world you’ll meet all sorts of people, you’ll see terrible things wonderful things, you’ll meet despots, saints…. Never become jaded never become weary always greet each morning with the privilege that you have as a writer to record the doings of the world. Never lose your sense of wonder.
No. 2: Don’t bother to learn short hand. Everyone will tell you you’ve got to learn perfect Pittman shorthand, complete nonsense, have nothing to do with it.
No. 3: Every month package up the stories you’ve written for your newspaper and send them to me at (home address – famous only for being the birthplace of Lloyd George) in North Wales. Package up your stories, I’ll read them, I’ll annotate them and I’ll try and turn you into a better writer. Well you can imagine what kind of stories I was writing in those days…..Four nuns hurt in car crash and none hurt. Pigeon fancy a loser’s priced bird….I would package them all up and I would send them down to James in North Wales. They would come annotated in his beautiful handwriting…this paragraph a little long this sentence a little inelegant, this verb a little infelicitously chosen. And very slowly, under his tutelage I believe I got slowly better, and so I got more and more responsible jobs. I left after 2 ½ years the paper in Newcastle upon Thyme. I joined the Guardian where I was sent to Northern Ireland covering all the troubles there, was immediately sent to Washington to cover the Watergate ; and all of a sudden I was on the front pages of British newspapers, in journalistic term doing rather well but all the time writing each month, sending my pieces to James Morris. We never met, at least we didn’t meet until August 1974.
Richard Nixon had resigned. Watergate had had its culminating triumph. Gerald Ford had pardoned Nixon. Washington suddenly went quiet. I decided to take a holiday. I would go climbing in North Wales. I flew to London, met up with an Australian friend of mine called Jackie Leashman. We drove up the road to North Wales. On the way to North Wales, Jackie said to me, “Doesn’t your friend James Morris live here?” Everyone knew that James had created the monster that I had become. “I’ve never met him.” “He created you you must get in touch”. When we got to the hotel she looked him up in the book, dialed his number, pressed the receiver into my ear, I said: “Hello this is Simon Winchester.” He said, “This is amazing I read you every morning from Washington. I created you. We’ve got to meet where are you?”. “I’m about 3 miles from where you live”. “You must come for tea tomorrow.”
And so the following day Jackie and I went climbing and went to the village at 3.30 pm where Mr. Morris lived and there unfolded the scene that I shall never forget. We parked the car, walked across the gravel to the house, rang the doorbell. I could see through the door carpets and everything was neat and tidy; and we were filthy and dirty climbing all day. So we knelt down on the front door step to undo our climbing boots and the door opened and a woman appeared. I looked up from a kneeling position and said: “ Oh hello, I’m Simon Winchester, this is Jackie Leashman, you must be Mrs. Morris.” The person said, “No, I’m James actually.” I thought this is very strange, but on the other hand, this was the 1970s, people wore their hair rather long. I stood up and this person said, “I’ll get my wife”. This is really getting odd. The Welsh (this is in Wales) have a propensity for jokes. I knew of James that he had climbed Mount Everest, had been a soldier in the British army, had four children, he had walked alone across the mountains, Saudi Arabia. He was very much a man’s man. I assumed it was a weird joke. Whoever came down the stairs would have a beard and a jacket… but not at all… down the stairs came a middle aged lady with a little girl in tow, and we all moved into the drawing room for tea with me fairly obviously a man, Jackie very much a woman.. Elizabeth Morris, a middle-aged lady, Suki a little 9 year old girl and with James, my hero, in pearls, little hanky in her sleeve, tweed skirt, court shoes, legs decorously crossed, with all the substantial accouchements of womanhood, but of course being Britain, nothing was said about this. We just sat and drank our tea and ate our biscuits and at 6.30 it was decided we’d leave. We said our goodbyes. Jackie and I left and, she was Australian and a rather forthright person as we passed through the gate: “What the f___ was that ?!? I said I haven’t the foggiest notion. So we drove back to the hotel mystified.
Next morning, an envelope was pushed under my door saying: Dear Simon, I’m so sorry to have put through what was somewhat an awkward social situation but the fact of the matter is I have decided after many years, that I’m going to become a woman, and I’m going to Casablanca next week to have the necessary surgery and if you can accept I hope you and I will remain friends. I have decided to take the name, if everything works perfectly, of Jan Morris. I hope you will remain my friend.
Well Jan is now 86 years old, she’s my absolute best friend. We’ve written a book together on British colonial architecture in India. Whenever she comes to New York she sees Setsuko and me. The laws of Britian required when she changed sex that two women weren’t allowed to be married. She and Elizabeth had to divorce but they remained living together because they loved each other so much. The law changed, and 5 years ago, Jan and Elizabeth now in their 80s remarried and the Minister who conducted their wedding back in the 1950s was still alive.. 106 years old…and participated presided over the wedding that brought their union together.
So it is the story that has a remarkable circulary which has allowed the Guardian editors for many years afterwards to say to anyone who wrote saying: ‘I want to become a reporter” They’d reply quite simply: “ To become a journalist on this paper, you first take a degree in Geology and make friends with a transsexual”…..
9 Nov 2012
2012 SEA Write Guest Speaker
Simon Winchester, OBE (born 28 September 1944), is a British author and journalist who resides in the United States. Through his career at The Guardian, Winchester covered numerous significant events including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. As an author, Simon Winchester has written or contributed to over a dozen nonfiction books and authored one novel and his articles appear in several travel publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Smithsonian Magazine, and National Geographic. Simon Winchester lives in New York and on a farm in Massachusetts.
Early life and education
Simon Winchester was born in the autumn of 1944 in northern London. Winchester attended several boarding schools in Dorsetand in 1963 went up to St Catherine’s College, Oxford to study geology. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in geology and found work with Falconbridge of Africa, a Canadian mining company. His first assignment was to work as a field geologist searching for copper deposits in Uganda.
While on assignment in Uganda, Winchester happened upon a copy of James Morris’ Coronation Everest – an account of the 1952 expedition which led to the first successful attempt to climb Mount Everest. Inspired by the book and with a desire to be a writer, Winchester sought career advice from Morris by mail. Morris urged Winchester to give up geology and get a job as a writer. Shortly after, Winchester left Africa and returned to England eventually finding work at The Journal in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In 1969, Winchester joined The Guardian, first as regional correspondent based in Newcastle upon Tyne, but was later assigned to be the Northern Ireland Correspondent. Winchester’s time in Northern Ireland placed him around several events of The Troubles, including the events of Bloody Sunday and the Belfast Hour of Terror.
After leaving Northern Ireland in 1972, Winchester was briefly assigned to Calcutta before becoming The Guardian’s American correspondent in Washington, D.C., where Winchester covered news ranging from the end of Richard Nixon’s administration to the start of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In 1982, while working as the Chief Foreign Feature Writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location for the invasion of the Falklands Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Tierra del Fuego for three months.
In 1985, Winchester shifted to work as a freelance writer and travelled to Hong Kong. When Condé Nast re-branded Signature magazine as Condé Nast Traveler, Winchester was appointed the Asia-Pacific Editor. Over the next decade and a half, Winchester contributed to a number of travel publications including the aforementioned Traveler, as well as National Geographic and Smithsonian magazine. With the success of Winchester’s books in the late 1990s, he has largely retired from journalism.
Winchester’s first book, In Holy Terror, was published by Faber and Faber in 1975. The book drew heavily on his first hand experiences during the turmoils in Ulster. In 1976, Winchester published his second book, American Heartbeat, which dealt with his personal travels through the American heartland. Winchester’s third book, Prison Diary, was a recounting of his imprisonment at Tierra del Fuego during the Falklands War and, as noted by Dr Jules Smith, is responsible for his rise to prominence in the United Kingdom.
Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Winchester produced several travel books, most of which dealt with Asian and Pacific locations including Korea, Hong Kong, and the Yangtze River.
Winchester’s first truly successful book was The Professor and the Madman (1998) published by Penguin UK as The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Telling the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, the book was a New York Times Best Seller, and the rights to a film version were optioned by Mel Gibson; likely to be directed by John Boorman.
Though he still writes travel books, Winchester has repeated the narrative non-fiction form he used in The Professor and the Madman several times, many of which ended in books placed on best sellers lists. His 2001 book, The Map that Changed the World focused on geologist William Smith and was his second New York Times best seller. The year 2003 saw Winchester release another book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Meaning of Everything, as well as the best-selling Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Winchester followed Krakatoa’s volcano with San Francisco’s 1906 earth quake in A Crack in the Edge of the World. The Man Who Loved China (2008) retells the life of eccentric Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham who helped to expose China to the western world.
Simon Winchester’s latest book The Alice Behind Wonderland was released March 11, 2011
Winchester was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to journalism and literature” in Queen Elizabeth II’s New Year Honours list of 2006.
Winchester was named an honorary fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford in October 2009.
Winchester received an honourary degree from Dalhousie University in October 2010.
Past Guest Speakers
2012 Mr. Simon Winchester
2011 Prof. Dr. Edwin Thumboo
2010 Mr. William Dalrymple
2009 Mr. Paul Theroux (first time in 1985)
2008 Mr. Antony Beevor
2007 Ms. Sarah Bradford
2006 S.P. Somtow (Somtow Sucharitkul)
2005 Ms. Rita Dove
2004 Ms. Meira Chand
2003 The Honourable Victoria Glendinning CBE FRSL
2002 Mr. Mario Vargas Llosa
2001 Mr Pico Iyer
2000 Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul
1999 Lord David Puttnam
1998 Mr Norman Mailer
1997 Mr Frederick Forsyth
1996 Miss Jung Chang
1995 Dame Iris Murdoch
1994 Mrs Margaret Drabble Holroyd
1993 Lord Jeffrey Archer
1991 Dr Norman Sherry
1990 Mr Sheridan Morley
1988 Mr Wilbur Smith
1987 Sir Peter Ustinov
1986 Mr Morris West
1985 Mr Paul Theroux
1984 Mr William Golding
1983 M.R. Kukrit Pramoj
1982 Mr Gore Vidal
1981 Dr Han Suyin
1980 Mr James A. Michener