Last Chance to See…book review

By Anna Sandiford 25/06/2010

Douglas Adams is one of my favourite authors.  I didn’t know he was also one of English actor/writer/comedian Stephen Fry‘s best friends (and I also didn’t know that Mr Fry has been an avid Apple Mac techno-chap for over 20 years).

Douglas Adams (for those who may not somehow know) wrote the inordinately fabulous Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in six parts (the most recent offering, And Another Thing…. being penned by Eoin Colfer using notes made by Douglas Adams before his untimely, sudden death in 2001 at the age of 49).

One of the other books Douglas Adams wrote was Last Chance To See, which was a non-fiction book about his travels with zoologist Mark Carwardine. From the Douglas Adams website is this description of Last Chance to See:

Some years ago Douglas Adams wrote The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a story about the world being unexpectedly demolished by hideous creatures from another planet. It was meant as a joke… Now, animal by animal, tree by tree, the world is being demolished around us [but] not by Vogons on other planets. Douglas decided it was time to think about the absurdities of life on Earth, and what we are doing to it. He teams up with zoologist and photographer Mark Carwardine, and together they set off around the world ….. in search of [some] of the rarest and most endangered animals on Earth.

The edition of Last Chance to See that I read back in the 1990s was published in 1990 and I understand from the Foreword in the Fry/Carwardine version that the original Adams/Carwardine version hasn’t been out of print since that first airing in the 1990s. That in itself gives you an idea of how interesting the book is, not only in terms of what it has to say but, possibly more importantly, in how it says it.

The premise of the first version of Last Chance to See was just that – a chance for these two people (a comedy science fiction writer and a zoologist) to roam the globe to try and find some of the world’s rarest creatures and to see how they were getting on and what efforts were being made to try to save them from extinction.  Amongst the creatures being sought was the New Zealand kakapo.  After 20 years, Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry undertook the same challenge to see what was left of the little that had been present 20 years earlier.  These two chaps, who didn’t know each other very well at all, plunged off around the world together, but wouldn’t see the Yanghtze River dolphin or the northern white rhino because they are now both officially extinct in the wild (some northern white rhino survive in zoos, but the Yanghtze River dolphin’s had it).

Now I’m sure many people will have watched at least one episode of the TV series that went with the book.  It’s the one where the kakapo tries to copulate with Mark Carwardine’s head, much to the amusement of Stephen Fry and, indeed, most of New Zealand including the Prime Minister who then announced that Sirocco the Kakapo was New Zealand’s newest spokesbird.  Now the fruity kakapo has his own Facebook page and the videoclip is available on YouTube: Shagged by a rare parrot – Last Chance to See.

So to the point of this blog: the book review.  The copy I have was printed in 2009 and is a hardback.  I have to admit to having not finished it yet but I think the biggest surprise for me was that it was not written by Stephen Fry.  He wrote the Foreword and Mark Carwardine wrote the rest of it.  I was a bit worried by this because the first version was written by Douglas Adams so I kind of assumed that the second round would also be written by a writer.  That just goes to show how little I knew about Mark Carwardine because he is clearly well used to writing and he does it very well.

I don’t intend going through the entire book because it is well-publicised and a simple Google search or click on the links I’ve added here will give you an outline.  What I always want to know about books is whether they held the reader’s interest sufficiently well that when they checked the time, two hours had gone by when it only felt like twenty minutes.  This book is one of those.  Even trying to dip into it I get sucked in and half an hour’s gone by just skipping to read about how Stephen Fry broke his leg falling off a boat on the first day of filming.

Quite often, books that accompany a TV series are written to make money and they’re just boring recounts of what happened each day and what was on each episode.  Thankfully, this book is well away from that, largely because they make it ‘real’ somehow.  It’s all in the writing and the reason for writing – the passion comes through.

Part of the reason I haven’t finished this book is because a close family member came to stay and hogged it.  She had this to say about it:

This is a well-told account that mentions not only the important ecological information but also those earthy things such as bottom trouble that are not mentioned in many travel books.

It’s a factual book (as was the first version) but not in a dry, two-dimensional way.  Many non-fiction books can be very dry by providing only facts about an area without adding personal colour.  Even when people describe a situation they can often take the colour from it just by trying too hard to describe what they’re seeing and not saying what they’re actually experiencing at the base level.  Facts in Last Chance to See are giving in small enough chunks to be digestible in between narrative about the personalities, the latter completing the 3-dimensional impression.  For example, Stephen Fry says to Mark Carwardine “Here’s that six quid I owe you” as he holds out a (not really) sick squid.

Although the loss of species from the Earth’s surface for whatever reason (though a lot of them because of the direct effects of humans) is not a joking matter, as with any other stressful or difficult situation many people find that humour is the best way to deal with it.  Personally, a bit of humour also helps me to absorb the terrifying reality of the death of animals through no particular fault of their own.

Overall, this book is depressing in its reality.  The thing that I came away with (even though I haven’t finished it yet) is that the only way to save so many other animals is a drastic reduction in the human population.  As that is not going to happen through our choice I think we have to face the fact that many species will be lost just because there are too many people on the planet, regardless of how much we try to do to prevent any further non-human species losses.  It’s not over yet though and what is being done is crucial.

If you’re going to absorb messages about species loss from a book, receiving those messages in an interesting and English-humour way makes it easier to bear.

Book details:
Last Chance to See: in the footsteps of Douglas Adams
Mark Carwardine with foreword by Stephen Fry
320 pp. Text and colour photographs.
HarperCollins, 2009
ISBN: 978 000 729072 7

0 Responses to “Last Chance to See…book review”

  • Last Chance to See is one of my favourite books. When I had to cull my extensive library heavily in order to move halfway around the word, it made the trip.

    Not sure I would want to read the follow-up, though. It might be too depressing.

  • I really enjoyed the original book. Adams certainly had a great writing style.

    So I will keep an eye out for this version. Enjoyed the documentary.