Author Rupert Winchester has landed in Cambodia, which is the setting of his latest literary effort. Earlier this year he released Wild Blue Yonder, a novel about a rock legend who rejoins his old band, and in 2004 he edited Simon Winchester’s Calcutta, a series of writings on India by his father, the best-selling non-fiction author who also wrote The Surgeon of Crowthorne, Krakatoa, and The Map that Changed the World). Simon Winchester’s travel and writing experience reads like an international ‘where’s where’ of some of the late-twentieth century’s most significant events: Bloody Sunday and the six-county ‘troubles’; the independence of Bangladesh and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency Rule; Watergate; the Jonestown Massacre; Pol Pot’s death and cremation, and, notably; the Falklands War, where Winchester himself became the story, charged by the Argentineans with espionage and imprisoned for three months. 7Days talked to Rupert about growing up with the globe-trotting journalist.
You’ve followed in your father’s literary footsteps and recently released the novel Wild Blue Yonder. What is the novel about, and does your father offer you much advice on your projects?
That book was a satire on the music industry and the culture of excess around it. I didn’t discuss it with my father when I was writing it, but he’s always good for contacts and advice if needed. My current book is set in Cambodia, which is what brings me here.
What are your memories from your father’s time imprisoned in Tierra del Fuego?
I remember a lot of TV crews parked outside our house, and having to give lots of interviews. I don’t remember being particularly worried about him. I was probably quite relieved to get a break from being told to get a haircut and turn my music down.
Was it difficult reading his personal account Prison Diary: Argentina?
I’m not sure I ever did more than skim through it. I had a pretty good idea what was in it.
His biography notes a 1977 trip in the family Volvo from Oxford through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to take up a post in New Delhi. Do you recall the journey?
Oh, yes, of course. It was wonderful. Pre-revolutionary Iran, pre-Russian invasion Afghanistan: it was fascinating. But, after taking tea with warlords in the Khyber Pass and buying switchblades in Kabul market, going back to boarding school in England seemed terribly mundane.
How did you find working together on the history-travel book Calcutta?
It was a remarkably easy process, despite not being on the same continent when we wrote it. I did all the heavy lifting, as it were, and he added bits here and there.
Your father is recognised for his detailed accounts on obscure historical figures and events. Was he an obsessive parent growing up?
Well, he seemed fairly normal, mostly. But, looking back, he did have ... enthusiams ... I do recall forced route marches to find the source of the Thames, and painfully drawn-out searches for sleep-flattened pigs in Yunnan Province (they’re slaughtered pigs which are used as mattresses for several years, thereby curing the meat). And I learned a lot of bad language quite early on, being harassed up Welsh mountains in blizzards. But I think having an interest in things is wonderful, so I didn’t mind too much.
Finally, Simon has been honoured as an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Any notable perks attached?
I’m sure there a plenty of odd privileges that go along wth it, like being allowed to herd sheep across London Bridge, but all I know for sure is that his children can now get married in St Pauls Cathedral. Which came a bit late for me.