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Gavin Young – published in Independent January 19th 2001


Although Gavin Young reckoned that he ‘fell into journalism as a drunken man falls into a pond’ he spent most of his working life as one of the Observer’s best foreign-correspondents, later becoming the author of many successful travel books.

Young was born on April 24th 1928 and spent his youth in Cornwall and South Wales. After leaving Rugby he became a deck-hand in the Merchant Navy and did his National Service in the Welsh Guards before going to Oxford to read Modern History at Trinity College,  where he was taught by Tony Crosland who became a friend. Reading Conrad at Rugby had made him want to travel and in 1951 he was sent to work in Basra in Iraq by the shipping company of Ralli Brothers. While he was there he planned an expedition  across Arabia by camel and wangled an invitation to meet Wilfred Thesiger whom he thought would be sympathetic to his plan. When they met, Thesiger flatly dissuaded him, saying he would never get a visa to Saudi Arabia, suggesting instead that they visit the Marsh Arabs together; a change of plan which was to have lasting consequences. Young learnt much from Thesiger but perhaps most importantly he adopted Thesiger’s passionate belief that enough natural barriers exist between outsiders and tribesman in the form of language, colour, religion and race without imposing artificial ones in the form of boiled water, mosquito-nets and canned food.

Young  left Ralli’s and went to live with the Marsh Arabs for two years before going to south-western Arabia where he helped the Bedu control their locust swarms. He left the Middle East at the time of the Suez crisis and went to North Africa where he  worked for Radio Maroc in Rabat and in Tangier, where in Dean’s Bar he met Ian Fleming,  then Foreign Manager of the Sunday Times. Fleming referred to Young as ‘My Zulu’ and when Young  wondered what he could do to avoid a conventional job it was Fleming who said: ‘There’s only one job in the world that pays people to be independent, to travel anywhere on this globe, and to hobnob with heaven-knows-who from a president to a prostitute. That job is journalism.’

Young was uncharacteristically terrified at the thought of writing, but nevertheless was so keen to stay in North Africa that he wrote to David Astor at the Observeroffering his services; choosing the Observerrather than the Sunday Times,as he agreed with their then minority view that Arab nationalism was here to stay. Astor interviewed Young in London and hired him as a stringer, a job which he nearly turned down out of sheer panic. After six months he was promoted to staff and in 1961 one of his first assignments was to go to Nagaland, which neither he, or anyone else at the Observer had heard of,  a remote region in the mountains of north-eastern India where the borders of India, Burma and China meet. The Nagas had been fiercely loyal to the British and had wanted to remain part of the British Commonwealth after Indian Independence in 1947 and in 1961 they had taken up arms against the Indian Army.

During his time as the Observer’sForeign Correspondent, Young known for being intrepid and brave, covered wars in: Algeria, Cuba, the Congo, the Middle East, Kurdistan, Yemen, Bangladesh, Angola, Vietnam and Cambodia. When he had arrived in Vietnam in early 1965 he found the Vietnamese ‘possibly the warmest-hearted people in the world’ and he found that the articles he wrote about the effect of war on a typical Vietnamese family gave him the most satisfaction.  Young was a genius at putting people at their ease, although he could push his friends to the limit with his teasing;  he had an instant rapport with people, an invaluable gift for a traveller, and in Vietnam he was one of the few correspondents who bothered to get to know the Vietnamese; years later he was extremely generous to a Vietnamese family he sponsored to come to the west.

In 1962 the Observer sent him to New York for two years. He saw this as a giant step and found New York as ‘exactly, thrillingly, what I had expected’, but thought Washington ‘about as interesting as a Bank Holiday weekend in Guildford.’ In contrast to the rather spartan way he travelled in remote places, when he was in a city he liked the high life and in New York tended to spend so much time with people like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Mary McCarthy that he was apt to be late filing his copy. He later became the Observer’sParis correspondent.

In 1971 he won the IPC’s International Reporter of the Year Award for his coverage from Dacca of the Indo-Pakistan War and the birth of Bangladesh; he  later bemoaned the penny-pinching by newspapers that led to the loss of most foreign-correspondents and could not believe that the red-blooded Stevensonian wanderlust had quite evaporated. The complacency of the western world annoyed him, and he became increasingly irritated during his visits to England. Young mostly travelled to meet people and for  change, and called himself a ‘travel-addict’ believing ‘There are worse things in life than lice in the seams of your shirt or even bedbugs in your jeans. Stagnation, for example.’

In 1975 he went back to see his friends the Marsh Arabs and in 1977 his first book Return to the Marshes was published. Iraq: Land of Two Rivers  (1979) followed shortly afterwards. He wanted to be accepted as a writer, and was worried about the transition from journalist to writer; in 1979 partly to satisfy his  ‘travel-addiction’ and also to satisfy a childhood dream involving anything to do with sea travel, Young spent seven months travelling from Greece to China by a variety of boats. The resulting book Slow Boats to China  (1981) was described by William Shawcross as ‘Beautifully written…tremendously good.’ He followed this in 1985 with Slow Boats Home  a journey from Shanghai back to England via the South Seas. Worlds Apart  (1987) is a collection of pieces written in both war and peace, and in In Search of Conrad  (1991) with which he jointly won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1992, Young unravels both his own and Conrad’s fascination with the East. He considered this book his first work of literature and as an important transition from travel writer to writer.  From Sea to Shining Sea  (1995)  delves into America’s past and A Wavering Grace  (1997) is the story of a Vietnamese family in both war and peace.

As a young man Young was exceptionally good-looking, he  was invariably well-dressed and very much a presence wherever he went and over the years he accumulated a wide circle of friends and many godchildren. He was a prodigious reader and loved talking and listening to music. A close friend remembers him for his incredible personal bravery, citing an occasion which took place in the late 70s in a  bar in a white working class area of Cape Town in which a very drunken Afrikaner spat in Young’s face with a string of insults. Young very slowly took the paisley handkerchief from his top pocket, wiped his face and spat back. Young’s companion thought they were both bound to be lynched, but Young had such a cool presence that the man backed off and they were able to finish their drinks in peace.

Gavin Young died January 18th2001