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Simon Winchester: A curious writer, scientist and adventurer

Rita Widiadana
Rita Widiadana

The Jakarta Post

Ubud | Mon, July 23, 2018 | 09:35 am
Simon Winchester: A curious writer, scientist and adventurer

“The most difficult task for anyone wandering through a foreign land with the hope of gaining some insight into it is the profound need to come to terms with the lives and thoughts of strangers.” – Simon Winchester (berkshireeagle.com/Setsuko Winchester)

Simon Winchester, author of the bestseller Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, has traveled to places all over the world that have provided inspiration for his numerous bestselling books.

Krakatoa brilliantly portrays the nature and magnitude of the Krakatau eruption and its impact on society, both in the region and globally. 

The legendary 1883 eruption of the volcano-island of Krakatau in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra islands was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly 40,000 people. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France.

In the book, Winchester brings together strands of history, religion, biology and social and cultural understanding as well as the essential earth science that readers would expect from a book about Krakatau and a volcanic disaster. 

“It is a stark reminder of the importance of having knowledge and sensitivity to place when thinking about disaster events,” said Joel Gil, founder of Geology for Development.

During his recent visit to Indonesia, Winchester, a geologist by education, witnessed the country’s volcanic eruptions from Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra, Mount Anak Krakatau in the Sunda Strait, Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta and Mount Agung in East Bali.

“It has been difficult for a scientific community to predict an eruption of a volcano or an earthquake,” said Winchester. “It may or it may not erupt. That is always the case with a volcano.”

Situated on the Ring of Fire, Indonesia is home to 130 active volcanoes stretching from Sumatra, Java, Bali, West Nusa Tenggara and Sulawesi to the Maluku Islands.

Living in this vulnerable area means there is a constant fear of eruption.

“I have climbed volcanoes in Sumatra, Java and Tambora in Nusa Tenggara and a volcano on Banda Island. Those places are stunning,” he said. “So if you want to live among the beauty, you have to take a risk.”

A country like Indonesia, he said, must be ready to deal with constant natural disasters. “Japan is one of the best countries that equips its people with education and accurate information to cope with regular disasters — be it earthquakes, tsunamis and other [natural disasters].”

When visiting Mt. Agung in Bali amid eruptions, he said, the scientific community was required to warn authorities about preparing for a possible disaster. Mt. Agung, Bali’s most active volcano, has continued to spew out ash, months after its first eruption late last year.

“Only after the scientific evidence shows quality data and information of the nearest possible eruption can the authorities inform and evacuate the people. Do not make them panic.”

Winchester said that places that are geologically active tend to be beautiful. “But people forget that the beauty was created by geological forces.” 

San Francisco and Los Angeles are beautiful places. “But the beauty came after massive earthquakes.”

Born to Bernard and Andrée Winchester as their only child in north London on Sept. 28, 1944, Winchester went to Oxford in l963 to study geology at St. Catherine’s College.

After graduating in 1966, he joined a Canadian mining company, Falconbridge of Africa, and worked as a field geologist in Uganda.

He then made a sudden and unexpected switch to journalism in 1967, a short while after reading a copy of Coronation Everest by James (now Jan) Morris while in a jungle camp in Uganda. 

“The book had totally changed my life. In 1966, I was a young geologist exploring the Congo-Uganda borderlands. I read James Morris’s Coronation Everest. Suddenly, I wanted to become a writer, a journalist.”

He later wrote to James Morris, who was a correspondent of The London Times, asking if he could possibly be a reporter. “Morris replied that if I wanted to be a reporter, I had to quit my job as a geologist.”

He started a new career in newspaper reporting and remained a full-time writer for the rest of his working life.

In 1969, he joined The Guardian. He covered a series of major historical events, such as the Bloody Sunday events in Northern Ireland, the creation of Bangladesh and the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of United States president Richard Nixon. 

In 1982, while working as chief foreign feature writer for The Sunday Times, Winchester was on location during the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine forces. Suspected of being a spy, Winchester was held as a prisoner in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, for three months. 

He wrote about this event in his book Prison Diary, published in 1983. In the same year, Winchester shifted to working as a freelance writer and traveled to Hong Kong. 

When Condé Nast re-branded Signature magazine as Condé Nast Traveler, Winchester was appointed its Asia-Pacific editor, which allowed him to explore all corners of the world.

In l998, he moved to New York. It was there that his recent good fortune as an author began, with the publication in 1998 of The Surgeon of Crowthorne.

The book was adapted into a film called The Professor and the Madman. Directed by Mel Gibson, it was a success and truly changed his life.

Since then, Winchester has written more than 20 books, including The Map that Changed the World, A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption, Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (The Biography of an Ocean) and, more recently, Pacific: The Ocean of the Future and The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.

In his book Pacific, Winchester makes the argument that while the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were keys to the past, the Pacific is the ocean of the future. He delves into climate change threats, nuclear bomb threats and other issues.

As a scientist, he has warned about the real impact of climate change and the aggressiveness of military rivalries in the region.

“Climate change is real. Despite the fact that the evidence is overwhelming, many people, including US President Donald Trump and many of his Cabinet members, still deny it,” he argued.

“As a scholar and writer, I am ashamed of this stupidity and I feel responsible for educating people on the real scientific and natural impacts of climate change.” With the climate change and scientific deniers currently in power, the world, some say, is entering its dark period. “We are now going backwards.”

Despite his many bestselling books, Winchester is not motivated by fame or fortune. “I am not interested in material rewards or fame. Being a writer is a noble profession,” he said, adding that people should find happiness in accomplishments, not pleasure alone.

“In my case, the knowledge in the book that people can learn about gives me real pleasure.”

There were times when Winchester was genuinely happy and grateful, such as when Queen Elizabeth II awarded him with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006. The award was dedicated to his services in journalism and literature.

He said he was so humbled before the queen. “I felt tears running down my cheek. People from the British Foreign Ministry said the award was dedicated to British men and women living overseas who brought honor and glory to the country,” said the author, who obtained American citizenship in 2006.

Despite his international fame, Winchester and his wife Setsuko Sato, a former National Public Radio producer and distinguished artist, live quietly in New York City and spend much of their time at a small farm in Massachusetts.

“One day I traveled along the Korean Peninsula for my book. I met an elderly fortuneteller who said that I would live until 88 years old. Now, I am 74. There might be 14 years to come. I wake up every morning feeling so blessed and grateful. Every day is a precious bonus for me.”

When he is not traveling and writing, he loves gardening, beekeeping, astronomy, stamp collecting, model railways and apple-cider making.

“When I first harvested honey from my bee farm 15 years ago, the feeling was incredible. How can a small insect like a bee produce such a nutritious and delicious golden liquid? I could not remember in my life being happier than that time.”

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