Saturday, September 7, 2013


Halfway through A Curious Man, Neal Thompson's bio of Robert Ripley (of Ripley's 'Believe It or Not' fame). It's an entertaining and intriguing read so far. I've always strongly felt the allure of Ripley's exotic world - his odditoriums I visited on vacations to America as a teen, some vintage paperback collections of his illustrations I found in a second hand bookstore, and the 1980s Believe It or Not television series hosted by Jack Palance. But all I really knew about the man himself was what I read in the slim souvenir booklet which I bought at the San Francisco odditorium. In A Curious Man, Ripley comes across, at least in his early days, as a somewhat eccentric but likeable misfit, displaying (like many men of the period) some rather primitive attitudes towards women and a lack of any political correctness. The revelation that a lot of Ripley's famous oddball facts were actually dug-up by a hardworking research assistant who received not a single credit or mention, is a little disillusioning but hardly surprising. Some of Ripley's early observations on subjects like Japan's naval build-up and the potential consequences of religious fanaticism, proved eerily astute in hindsight. Where the bio really comes to life for me is in the descriptions of Ripley's early treks to locales like the Orient, India and New Guinea, places that were still considered very strange and unknown to most westerners - beautiful but forboding. Reading of Ripley's travels to these places, collecting all manner of cultural curios along the way, made me appreciate just how much more thrilling and dangerous it would have been to disappear into these countries back in the 1920s, when much of them were still unexplored by foreigners, and home and family weren't just a mobile phone or internet café away.