Dodging Bullets & Eating Pelican | Checking In with DBC Pierre
The Booker prize-winning author has lived a life that matches the strangeness of his novels
Photo: Peter Rowe
In this series, we check in with some of our favourite jetsetters - actors, adventurers, musicians, models, fashion designers, foodies, authors, and activists - and ask them about their favourite stories from life on the road.
“I’ve never really talked about it,” says Booker Prize-winning author DBC Pierre, “but it’s a real thing for me - I’m a complete aviation anorak, and I have been since I was a child”.
It’s not necessarily the kind of confession you’d expect from a writer who has something of a reputation as a literary bad-boy - a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson who famously scandalised the publishing establishment by using his Booker winnings to pay off debts incurred in his drug and drink-fuelled youth.
"By the time I was a teenager I'd seen at least two people shot dead"
But while an affinity with plane spotters might be unexpected, the hour or so I spend chatting to Pierre (ahead of his appearance at the Beat Hotel festival in Marrakech next month) reveals that it’s more in keeping with his character than you might think. It also speaks to the long-held love of travel that’s shaped his life and inspired much of his work, from that prize-winning debut, Vernon God Little, onwards.
Born in Australia, Pierre developed a fondness for exploring other cultures (alongside his love of planes) at a young age, when his parents moved to Mexico. It was, he says, a surreal place to grow up. “We were living in a mansion with servants and a chauffeur, and the people over the wall from us had Bengal tigers as pets. As you do.”
And yet as a kid, he was unaware that any of this was weird. “We normalise a lot that's around us,” he says. “So it didn't seem unusual at the time, but by the time I was a teenager I'd seen at least two people shot dead.”
Guns, it seems were just a part of everyday life. “I was shot at myself - by a friend actually,” he says. After a dispute in a boxing class, “I was walking down the street and he started sniping me from the roof of his house with an automatic rifle. I still don't know if he wanted to hit me or miss me, but within a month we were friends again. It wasn't that big a deal.”
Somehow neither that baptism of fire, nor the numerous sketchy plane journeys he took to and from Australia were enough to put Pierre off travelling. Having spent long stints in Spain, Trinidad, and Venezuela, he now splits his time between the UK and Ireland and continues to travel regularly for both business and pleasure.
As a novelist, Pierre finds flying provides endless opportunities for character observation. “It's like a laboratory for people-watching,” he says. “We’re quite different when we travel. People are opalescent - you see a different flash of colour with people that are travelling. They’re full of emotion - it's one of those things like sleep and like sex and like drugs which brings you close to the edge of something.”
"Travel is one of those things like sex and drugs which brings you close to the edge of something"
But Pierre is also an evangelist for travel’s potential to challenge preconceptions. “The laws of physics and the laws of culture and things work very differently in other countries,” he says. “That's what pisses me off when as a culture we go bombing and sanctioning and deciding what the rest of the world should do. There's a very delicate and different set of codes running in these places - but we need to go there to realise that. Things don't have to be the same, and they shouldn't be the same.”
He’s fascinated too by the way the act of travelling itself warps perceptions. “You go through a Doppler shift, especially on a long haul. At some point when you get on the plane the ‘here’ washes away back into a dream state, and when you arrive ‘there’ you've suddenly lost ‘here’ completely. The two things can only exist in your mind when you're half way, on the flight. It's a quantum kind of thing - a taste of the multiverse.”
On top of all that, Pierre explains, he loves the Pavlovian response that flying still provokes - a reminder of his globe-trotting childhood (described in language that Hunter S. Thompson would doubtless approve of) that’s never quite left him. “As soon as I smell that mixture of kerosene and stale coffee I just relax. It's like a drug.”
Here, he talks us through where he’ll be going for his next hit.
Where would you go to escape?
Trinidad. Because the rum's good and the people are fabulous. I lived there for a while and it’s an extremely liveable place - really seductive. If you need to leave the world as we know it, you could just go and find a corner of a cane field or a jungle and stay there.
Where would you go for an adventure?
The Arctic - or Svalbard specifically. I'm just back from there actually, it’s very cool. It's a utopia - it's a lovely arctic landscape of course, but it's also a human utopia. It's not the territory of any country, it's governed by a treaty of about 35 countries, so there really aren't any laws. The governor can put you off the island but that's about the extent of it. In the meantime, everyone looks after themselves. You don't shut any doors at night in case there's a polar bear - wherever you are you should be able to run through the nearest door, whoever's door that is. But otherwise the only real rule is that you must carry a gun outside of the settlement because of bear attacks.
There's a beautiful sense of what humanity would be like if you took away all of this bullshit, and you took away all of the news and the politicians and all the crap that we deal with every day. This is just 2,000 people who have to manage themselves - and they're doing a pretty good job of it.
What’s the first thing you pack in your bag when you go away, and why?
Cigarette papers. Because most of the rest of the world doesn't roll its own cigarettes and in fact you risk getting busted in a lot of places because they think you're rolling joints. So yep, cigarette papers are always in there.
What’s the thing you miss most when you’re away?
My desk. It's covered in notes, and it's a bomb site, but that’s because it's an overflow zone from my brain. [When you’re] in the middle of a book you can carry the laptop and you carry it in your mind, but there's something about the cradle where it was growing that's important for it. It's good to write the thing at the same desk where you started - the notes might not be as important any more, but just their physical presence around there signifies that things are underway.
What’s the sketchiest situation you’ve ever been in while travelling?
The airlines that used to fly between Trinidad and Venezuela, which must have disappeared by now, they were always sketchy. You'd see the captain on his fourth cigarette, wearing old school shoes and a stained uniform, and he hasn't shaved in five days, it's the middle of the night and he's got Ray Bans on, and you just know that he's flying some desperate DC-9.
I was in a cricket club in Port of Spain with a guy from one of these airlines and he was telling me his hiring policy for pilots: "We don't want no-one from British Airways or Qantas or any of these big airlines, because as soon as so much as a broken toilet light comes on, they're not going to put the plane up in the sky. We need someone who can look out and see both wings are on, see the engines are attached and say: 'Let's get this thing to London'".
What’s the best drink you’ve ever had on holiday?
The best drink is, without question, an accidental invention called a Cuervo Walker. It's two parts Agavero tequila, which is a damiana-based liqueur. Damiana is a mood enhancer - I think it's been banned as a supplement in the States cos it actually works, it's like a happy herb. So two parts of that, one part of Johnnie Walker whiskey on top, mixed. And it's just one of those drinks that cures everything. Three of them is too many, but the first one literally cures everything.
I didn't discover it, but I know who did - they were in a smoking bar in Mexico City and the bar attendant came with a new drink, and the person said, “just chuck it in the existing glass”. And then said: “Wow, that really, really works.” And it does.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Pelican. It was awful. The fat was like goose, but salty and fishy and not meant to be eaten. Looking back I think it was a gag, I don't think it's something you'd ever normally put on a menu. But the particular madman that I was with - he was a lovely guy but he was on the mental health spectrum; he needed a certain amount of support and handling, especially if you were drinking - he decided to serve it to me.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on a plane?
I must have been on about 12 flights that had emergencies of some description. When I was about probably seven or eight years old we used to travel this fabulous, exotic jet route between Mexico and Australia. It flew from Mexico City to Acapulco, where it would refuel, and then Acapulco to Tahiti, and Tahiti to Fiji, and Fiji to Sydney.
One time, about 20 minutes after take-off from Tahiti the captain said: "Look, the control tower in Papeete has phoned up and said there's a lot of undercarriage left on the runway, is it ours? I'm telling you this because the first officer is going to come down the cabin and check. Just in case you thought something weird was happening, that's the situation.”
So the officer duly came down and looked under the floor and it turned out to be our main undercarriage - they'd obviously blown out a set of tyres on take-off. Then we had the better part of a five hour flight then wondering if the plane would be able to touch down.
What’s the best advice a taxi driver has ever given you?
It’s not really advice, but this taxi driver in Dublin told me this joke recently - he saw the hotel he was taking me to said: "I've been there. The problem is, all night long there were young women bashing on the door." I said: "Fuck, ok, that doesn't sound too peaceful, how did you get round that?" "I had to let them out in the end".
Where should everyone go at least once in their life?
To Armenia. It’s incredibly special - landlocked, surrounded on most sides by enemies, but such an unexpectedly beautiful and civilised place, and so incredibly hospitable. When you get there, you just sense that this is the cradle of civilised life. It's the place where cherries originate, it's the place where peaches originate, it's the place where wheat originated. They have an ancient, unique, beautiful language, the first Christian church ever after the death of Christ, [and] Noah's Ark is said to be there, up the side of Mount Ararat [now in present-day Turkey]. It's one of those small places that bats way above its average in terms of contributions to history - in the amount of geniuses and the amount of incredible progress that's come out of there.
Also, they make their own brandy that's so good, even Winston Churchill declared it finer than cognac. And it's hangover-free. If you meet anyone for a breakfast meeting, they will expect you to finish a bottle with them. You can do it and by lunchtime be ready for another one without getting a hangover - it's extraordinary. So yes, Armenia. It's really something special, a beautiful place.
And finally, what’s your favourite ever holiday read?
Ah, Papillon. It's what inspired me to go to Trinidad, where he also ended up on his adventures, and to Venezuela. In fact, if you go to Venezuela, there's a whole other side to the story, which I discovered later. Papillon ended up living there, and the story was that this ex-con wrote that whole story of his continuing escapes in three weeks on three notebooks, and then sent it to Paris, where it was published and became a literary sensation.
But in Venezuela they will tell you that what actually happened is that the man who claimed to be Papillon was just a resident in the same guesthouse where Papillon was - another ex-con who stole the manuscripts and sent them first. When Papillon himself sent his work to Paris sometime later, the publishers said: ‘Well, this has already been published’. So actually Papillon may not have been Papillon. I can't say. But once you get close to the region, everyone has their take.
As a holiday read that opened my mind, and gave me a taste of the real world. We're stuck in, you and I. We live in such a bubble of organised thought and it's getting worse and worse in English-speaking culture, with our middle class - we think we know who we are, and who the rest of the world is. Basically, the white middle classes are calling the shots for a vast majority who live in a very, very different way and we're such exceptionalists that we expect them to want all the shit that we have.
But it’s those places that haven't yet come to that party that particularly interest me. I think they’re the only ones laying claim to life as it should be - which is the management of chaos. Those beautiful places where you can survive outdoors, where everything is driven more by necessity, where you have to manage yourself within nature, where you've got insects and jungle and all sorts of thriving things working against you - they’ve always fascinated me.