:: Article

Alexander Frater 1937 – 2020

By Steven J Fowler.

You cannot live a fuller life and come out kinder and wiser than my friend, Alexander Frater, who died just upon the new year, after a time of illness. With his passing we witness the departure of a true luminary in a grand generation of travel writers, based in the UK, who reinvented, or invented, what we now take to be travel writing. From Norman Lewis, Freya Stark, Bruce Chatwin and Eric Newby, to Jan Morris, Colin Thubron and Patrick Leigh Fermor – Alexander Frater was a light amongst them, and a key figure in this remarkable era, commissioning, inspiring and instigating many of his peers while editor at the Observer magazine in the 70s and 80s.

He was a brilliant, distinct stylist – a writers’ writer, crafting absorbing, truthful, droll and enthusiastic books on travelling the earth through the later half of the 20th century. Always full of insight and wit, his books are very often subtle in their complexity, drawing portraits beyond the characters within them, beyond the places, anecdotes and experiences, beyond details of Alex’s own life, to lure the reader into meditations on culture, history, birth, death, illness and writing itself.

He was perhaps best known for his book Chasing the Monsoon and I met him in India, in 2016, at a literary festival. I watched first-hand how revered he was for this work, and how surprised he was, and slightly discomforted, by the attention it brought him. In India his book still sells hundreds of copies a month, years after it was published. I watched Alex shine light on others as he was praised. His charisma, his distinct charm and verve, were evident from seeing him speak, but getting to know him I found he possessed the kind of measured, honest humility that was palpable, balanced with his marked intellect, which he wore lightly. He was a man who had travelled to, and written about, almost every single country on this planet, through warzones and dictatorships, tracing history across generations and wore this experience in his personality. It occurs to me that if travel grows the soul, well then that explains Alex.

It was only after we began to meet regularly, after India, in Alex’s home of Richmond, I discovered just how considerably he had travelled and written, meeting him after his years as chief travel writer at the Observer and a three time winner of the Press Awards travel writer of the year. He had done too much to know anyway. Even as poured over his books, reading them back to back and being stunned by their adventure and ambition, he was casually mention a trip to North Korea, Vietnam during the war, meeting Idi Amin in an airport. His behaviour was so unaffectedly generous, always interested in you and deflecting questions on his own work and life, that he altered those in his company, lifted them to his own indelible decency. His friendship meant the world to me, not just because his respect, forty years my senior, was hugely affecting, but because what Alex taught me is that you can learn to be calmer, more considerate, more decent, by proxy. We are the company we keep. We often are our friends, when our friendship with them is aspirational. Alex allowed me no choice in his company to be embarrassed into sincerity, attentiveness and thoughtfulness, lest i be embarrassed thinking what he thought otherwise. All this with a sense of humour that had you in stitches.

My favourite of his books is Tales from the Torrid Zone. In it Alex recounts much of his own remarkable life, being born in Vanuatu where his dad ran a hospital and his mother built its first school. Alex then travels the entire tropical regions of the planet, through civil wars in Africa to a leper colony. At times the book is mesmerising, an enormous achievement, where tropical heat, the only part of the earth to pass direct beneath the sun, alters consciousness, language and experience itself. It will forever remain one of my favourite books.

Once, after many months of meeting, he told me he had to cancel his planned trip that year to Vanuatu because he had fallen ill. You could not tell from his company. I promised him if he were to aim to travel to the island ten years from our first meeting – where he was born and his mother and father worked, and where he returned a church bell, made in Whitechapel, as a gift to the church, and where his surname was still known so keenly – I would travel with him, and write a book on his life. I said I would accompany him there and back. It’d be one way, he said. Though he told me the deal was a touching thing to offer, I now regret making the term a decade rather than a year.

He was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met and as powerful an influence on those around him as I have witnessed. He was an ideal I had before I met him that I didn’t know I held until I saw it in him. I can’t help but feel in his passing, something more than his life is lost. That I am witnessing a generation of remarkable people pass by, of which we will not see the like of again. But this isn’t true, solipsism and idiocy on my part. It’s just because Alex was so immense, it feels this way.

Do read some of Alex’s books here and here

Steven J Fowler is a writer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 6th, 2020.