Captain Cook: obsession and betrayal in the New World by Vanessa Collingridge

Shipwrecked on a voyage of self-discovery
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The Independent Culture

Biography is dead. Travel writing is dead. History is dead. The only legitimate subject for non-fiction is the personal quest. Novels used to be derided as disguised autobiography. But now, it seems, the main element in every book has to be the author.

Vanessa Collingridge's Captain Cook is a prime example of the unstoppable rise of this self-obsessed genre. This is not a biography, but "The story of the three of us – James, George and me... where we should have been separated by geography, history and place in society, our stories were now fused into one". "James" is the 18th-century explorer; "George" is George Collingridge, a 19th-century obsessive who set out to prove that Cook did not discover Australia. "Me" is a former presenter on Tonight with Trevor McDonald. She also happens to be called Collingridge.

You can imagine how the story goes. First is the author's "own journey of discovery". Vanessa Collingridge says she had always been drawn to James Cook. But what interested her was the flawed "man behind the myth".

Then she came across the papers of George Collingridge. Working as an engraver in colonial Australia, Collingridge spent most of his time attempting to prove that the Portuguese reached the continent before the eminent British captain. He published a scholarly work, much derided at the time. His name-descendant wants to resurrect his reputation and represent Cook as a complex, troubled man.

Collingridge's television past makes her a celebrity of sorts, further boosting the need for her own story to be the thrust behind this confused narrative. The modern Collingridge is a jock. She's done a great deal of backpacking, crewed on a leg of a replica Endeavour's voyage around Australia, and qualified as an astronaut on Russia's Space Tourism Programme: all incidents that wheedle their way into the narrative without any real reason for being there.

Old George is a far more interesting subject. The engraver spoke seven languages fluently, a skill he turned to deciphering old maps. His research convinced him that, 250 years before Cook, the Portuguese had "discovered" Australia. In 1895, he published his "Critical, Documentary and Historic Investigation": The Discovery of Australia. It was designed to forge his reputation; instead, it was ridiculed. Cook was too big a legend to destroy so easily.

"James, George and me" compete for space. In short, snappy chapters, a fragment of Cook's life alternates with a fragment of George Collingridge's, until we're quite giddy. Then, of course, comes young Ms Collingridge's contribution: "As for myself, I had spent months trawling through map-rooms and libraries, retracing their footsteps or trawling the internet in pursuit of my quest to explore these two explorers."

Did nobody notice she had twice used the same words in one sentence? The writing gets worse. "Just as lands were discovered and then lost again through errors in cartography, my own understanding of Cook and Collingridge ebbed and flowed as I struggled to make sense of each new fact in relation to what I already knew or believed; two steps forward, one step back... a tango for three." And I thought it only took two to tango.

We could have done with less of "me" and more of George. Instead, the elder Collingridge is swamped, not only by this tortuous personal quest, but also by the heavily documented life of Cook. Most of the book becomes a simple retelling of the explorer's well-known adventures, from his discoveries in the South Pacific to his decline and brutal death in a place then known as the Sandwich Isles.

If only the author could have forgotten her teenage crush on Cook. If only the internal journey could have been abandoned – it seems such a conceit. If only this could have been a biography of George Collingridge. But that could only happen if non-fiction were allowed to look outwards again.

The reviewer's books include 'Serpent in Paradise', about Pitcairn Island