“He was an archaeologist, botanist, geologist, writer, poet and a brilliant ethnographer. He spoke 29 languages and could imitate 60 sounds made by monkeys. He could play four games of chess at once, blindfolded, and never lose…”
So commences Richard Grant’s profile of Sir Richard Burton, one of the most extraordinary explorers of all time. He was an imposing figure and Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, would often speak of Burton’s iron countenance and fierce loyalty. Yet goodbyes reduced Burton to tears, and it was his lifelong habit to depart the company of friends and family under cover of darkness, for fear of embarrassment.
Such a divergent range of behaviours and experience is certainly no bad thing – in fact, in contrast to our contemporary, Internet-based lifestyles, it might even seem desirable. Bringing attention to these individuals – people who have endeavoured to find new lands, heights or species, as Burton did relentlessly, often without acknowledgment – is key to why we create Avaunt. Hence this issue brings you wondrous pieces on impressive mountain climbers such as Junko Tabei (“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest. It’s only a mountain”), to Helen Mort writing about her acclaimed anthology, No Map Could Show Them, and the women climbers who dared to break new ground.
Surveying another type of landscape altogether, Zeynep Tufekci writes in this issue: “The politicians of yesteryear were trying to perform surgery with a cudgel. Facebook gave them a scalpel.” In a concise meditation on what is an increasingly complex subject, that of digital society, Tufekci, a self-styled ‘techno-sociologist’, pulls no punches. It’s both refreshing and disturbing.
Elsewhere we profile the erstwhile enfant terrible of the British climbing scene, the inimitable Stevie Haston, who elaborates on the forces that have motivated him, the cost his dedication to climbing has had on his personal life, and the unlikely individual behind “perhaps the last great era of British climbing”, Margaret Thatcher.
The scientist Humphry Davy was born a few years before Sir Richard Burton, and his words from 150 years ago offer a timely credo, both for this issue, and for the spirit of human endeavour that is at the heart of Avaunt: “Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume that our views of science are ultimate, that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”
—Ben Saunders and Dan Crowe