Obituary: Miles Clark

Libby Purves
Thursday 29 April 1993 23:02

Miles Clark, writer: born Magherafelt, Co Derry 3 November 1960; married 1987 Sarah Hill (one son); died Salisbury 17 April 1993.

MILES CLARK, who has died at 32, was already winning himself a place in the long tradition of British literary adventurers and sailors. He was, in a sense, raised for it: his father is the distinguished yachtsman and author Wallace Clark, and his godfather was Miles Smeeton whose 130,000 miles of deep-sea voyages produced such classics of the sea as Once is Enough. As a 13-year-old boy in Northern Ireland, Miles wrote to Brigadier Smeeton for advice on how to plan a single-handed transatlantic passage; unhesitatingly Smeeton replied, 'I do not think that a voyage like that would be outside your capabilities, even though you are so young,' and proceeded to issue practical advice.

Within four years Miles Clark's adventures had begun in reality: he joined Operation Drake at 17 in the Panamanian rain-forest, and as a geography student at Downing College, Cambridge, he organised an expedition to climb volcanoes and undertake scientific research in Atka, a rarely visited island in the Aleutian archipelago. In 1984, as a young soldier, he was one of the oarsmen who rowed Tim Severin's replica Greek galley through the Black Sea to Georgia; he is remembered as a particularly robust and even-tempered member of the crew on that tough journey. Later on, writing his biography of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, Miles Clark was to quote Nevil Shute's words about 'the great cloak of competence that wrapped them round'. The same garment distinguished him, too, both in his travels and his army life.

By his mid-twenties he became aware that action and travel were not enough. It was as important for him to communicate the wonders of the earth as to see them first-hand, and he determined to be a full-time writer. With considerable professional courage he gave up his military career for the uncertainties of freelance writing and photography in the crowded and competitive field of travel. He worked as Features Editor of Yachting Monthly to acquire professional craft, and travelled independently, contributing to many magazines and writing a short book on sky-diving.

But it was the publication in 1991 of High Endeavours, his biography of Miles and Beryl Smeeton, which established him as a serious and forceful writer. He had researched world-wide into the long, extraordinary and at times scandalous lives of this eccentric and adventurous climbing and sailing couple; and he won widespread critical acclaim both for his deft and stylish handling of a mass of material, and more importantly for the unexpected depths of sensitivity and psychological insight which he brought to the task of recording these 'bold and gentle spirits'. The achievement fuelled further his determination to make distinguished voyages, and write distinguished books about them.

He achieved the first goal last summer. He sailed his family's 60-year-old wooden yacht Wild Goose north to the Arctic circle, into the White Sea and through the canals and rivers to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, effectively circumnavigating Russia. It was a hard journey, made in hard times: he met logistical difficulties ranging from icebergs to Russian bureaucracy, and had harrowing encounters with despair, pollution and war. He was writing the book at the time of his death.

Miles Clark was an enthusiast: a stimulating companion and a sweet- natured friend, with an endearing willingness to ask advice from other writers and a passion for learning. He set relentlessly high standards for himself, but in the midst of an active life remained a young man of profound kindness, who would remember to send amusing notes or computer-drawn pictures to friends, children, following up conversations with them. He is survived by his wife Sarah, three-year-old son Finn, his brother Bruce, a foreign correspondent for the Times, and his parents.

(Photograph omitted)

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