Awfully big adventures


It could be argued that the 19th-century explorer became the 20th-century travel writer, the problem being of course, that war and colonial exploitation had left nothing new to discover. And many of the most high-profile travel writers now tend to write about themselves and the invariably odd people they meet along the way, as much as about the places they visit. Tim Severin doesn't - he is about as detached a chronicler of his adventures as there is.

It is difficult to classify him but that is obviously the way he prefers it. He is a reporter, not a geographer, not a renegade historian - "I'm an historian of exploration" - and is more concerned with accuracy than literary flourish or style. His most famous narratives are accounts, records, documentaries between covers. Yet in an earlier guise Severin specialised in history, while his best book to date, The Spice Is- lands Voyage (1997), sets out to rediscover Alfred Russel Wallace, author of The Malay Archipelago, a contemporary of Darwin and one of the unsung heroes of natural history.

Considering that this is the man who took to the Atlantic in a small leather boat on a hunch that St Brendan had sailed to the New World in the 6th century, or later tackled the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that Asian sailors had reached America more than 2,000 years ago on a similar craft, Severin seems too practical to be a dreamer. Nor is he a showman. There is no excess, no drama, just a strong ego. His expression is weary rather than flamboyant. Ask him if he is a hero and he'd wonder at the question.

He plans his adventures, sets off with the intention of writing a book about it, and when he returns does exactly that. It is all very crisp and methodical, as he is himself. It is also dangerous. But, as he says, once you discover your fear threshold, it is no longer a problem. Small, compact, self-contained and quiet by nature, with a spartan, soldierly aura, he is ideally designed to fit in small places. Order comes naturally to him. He does not appear to surround himself with an excess of possessions and says: "I'm not one for bringing back souvenirs." No doubt he has become used to his escapades, as historical exploration is his job. But his lack of obvious excitement is disappointing to someone who still gets a kick out of having kayaked on the Suir.

Now 59, he is reserved, remote, tough and very English, although he says he does not feel particularly British, is an Irish citizen and stresses he writes for "a truly international audience". It is 30 years since he settled in south-west Co Cork, at first in the small fishing village of Courtmacsharry. About three years ago, he moved a few miles away, to Timoleague at the mouth of the river Argideen. The village boasts the impressive ruins of a large Franciscan friary dating from about 1312. It overlooks the sea and even on a blustery day the abbey rising high over the winding road is a peaceful place.

"Discreet" and "business-like" are apt descriptions for Severin, who has been famous since setting off on his Brendan voyage in 1976. The best-selling book followed two years later but, as he says himself: "The Brendan book was my seventh." It is in keeping with his disciplined personality that he can survive periods of public attention and then retreat quietly into his other life. Nor does he profess a passionate love for the sea and describes himself as "an adequate sailor" no more, no less.

Brendan, Sinbad, Jason: he has followed in their footsteps while also investigating the route of the First Crusade, and joining a group of Nomads to explore on horseback the career of Genghis Khan. Most recently he has been pursuing the myth of the White Whale as the source of Melville's classic, Moby Dick. This took him to several Pacific Islands where he set out sifting the truth from the fiction by asking the last remaining whale hunters had they ever encountered the white whale.

By now Severin has done so much, another adventure might well cause onlookers to sigh and dismiss his chosen profession as an extreme form of self-indulgence. After all, how many explorers have been lucky enough to have one quest, the Sinbad voyage, sponsored by a Sultan? The people of Oman were thrilled by Severin's undertaking, seeing it, as he says, "as my giving them their history. It was not Tim Severin's story, it was theirs."

Severin has a slightly upper-class air about him yet is not indolent enough to fully convince as the child of privilege he could be seen as. The mention of the word privilege is greeted by him with some irony. Born in Assam in 1940, the second son of a tea planter, his childhood was about as far removed from the Raj Quartet as could be.

"We were very poor. Tea planters were not rich. The people who owned the plantations were, but they were back in Scotland and England. My parents were poor." His mother belonged to fourth-generation tea planters; her background was Danish, whereas his English father was a second-generation planter. They had met in India. At the age of six, Severin returned "home" to a country he had never been to. "The children were `sent' back" - mainly to attend boarding schools. Severin arrived in England with his brother, two-and-a-half years his senior, both wearing labels, and were picked out at the Liverpool docks by their grandmother who recognised them as children from the East. Not because they were exotic: "Compared with all the plump rosy children who had been sent to the country as evacuees, we were miserable-looking. Poor diet."

Severin did not see his parents for four years - that return trip was extended due to his brother's illness. Although his parents settled in England some years later when his father's health failed, he says he still didn't see much of them "and anyway, I left home at 16".

There is no note of regret. His attitude is about as stiff-upper-lip as you can get this side of the army, and he makes me feel a cissy for asking if the absence of his parents affected him, but Severin makes the point: "It was the same for everybody I knew", and after a pause adds: "It makes you independent. I was taught to wash my own clothes when I was seven." No wonder he has never had any difficulty living on small boats. He laughs at the memory of a 19-year-old boy he knew much later who never stopped moaning about his lot despite the fact "he used to bundle up his laundry in brown paper and send it home to be washed".

At Tonbridge School in Kent which he went to at 13, he did well. "I was good at school - except for maths" and left after three years, when he won a scholarship to the US. At the private school in New England, Severin and the school administrators soon discovered his English education had left him well ahead of his classmates, and he enjoyed an unusual freedom to do more or less as he pleased. Happily availing of this, he hitch-hiked across the US. He enjoyed Eisenhower's post-war America.

"It was a great era, the Everly Brothers and a new hope." On ending up on a cattle ranch, he was told if he survived a week, "we'll give you a job". Later he would write an article about this, which would win him another useful scholarship. Severin returned to England and entered Keble College Oxford to study geography.

There he continued the pattern of doing much as he pleased. "I have never liked being a member of a herd." As a student he was already on the path to practical exploration, and for his undergraduate thesis set off after Marco Polo. It proved useful, as one of the 23 questions in his final exams - the only one he could attempt ("Those nice Oxford geography people put it in especially for me") - featured great explorers. He passed his exams and continued his loose arrangement with the university, while also travelling and writing. He married an American whose field is medieval Spanish and with whom he had a daughter; the marriage ended some years ago.

Severin has lived the life of a professional freelance writer. His books sell well although they have never quite captured the US market. He feels this may be due to their lack of personality: "I'm always being told `put more of your self in Tim' ", but it would not come naturally to him. Privacy is so important to him he is constantly on guard; it makes him a watchful interviewee, and he is at his most relaxed when speaking about his friend, Trondur Patursson, the Faeroese artist who joined the Brendan voyage when it arrived at the Faeroe Islands and has been part of the Severin team ever since.

He's a tall, bearded fellow with "a solid mass of hair" standing in an arc some three inches off his scalp. Severin's first impression of Trondur was that "he could have stepped straight from an illustration in Grimm's fairy tales". He is also a serious sailor with a range of skills. His drawings have illustrated all of Severin's books, and some of the originals hang on the walls of Severin's fishing lodge, which is a practical place, a work of restoration which borders closely on the purpose-built. It is a surprise to see him living in a home a few miles inland from Timoleague village; there are no sea views here. But then it does not seem likely he would waste time just staring into space; Severin must have to work quite hard at relaxing.

What does Moby Dick mean to him? "It's very American. I first read it when I was far too young. I didn't understand it at all. Since then, of course, I have read it again. I think it has a chip-on-the-shoulder tone. Melville is showing off things he learnt. There is a lot of begrudgery in it. But of course, it is also wonderful."

His next project is a secret, and although I make several pretty good guesses, he refuses, as is his habit, to reveal his plans either on or off the record. He is prepared to say he will not be replicating the travels of Don Quixote, "although I had thought of it". He smiles a slightly irritating "got you" sort of smile. Asked for a clue he provides one off the record and then says helpfully: "You see I'm slowly filling in the map of the world."

In Search of Moby Dick - Quest for the White Whale by Tim Severin is published by Little Brown at £18.99 in UK