Cocker, Mark 1959-
COCKER, Mark 1959-
Born 1959, son of Peter (a shopkeeper) and Anne (a shopkeeper) Cocker; married Mary Muir, January 7, 1989; children: Rachel, Miriam. Education: University of East Anglia, degree in English literature.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House United Kingdom, Vintage Publicity, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England. E-mail—[email protected]
Winston Churchill fellow, 1998.
(With Carol Inskipp) A Himalayan Ornithologist: The Life and Work of Brian Houghton Hodgson, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1988.
Richard Meinertzhagen: Soldier, Scientist, and Spy, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1989.
Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1992.
Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1998, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Birders: Tales of a Tribe, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Bird Britannica, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 2005.
In his works, Mark Cocker shows an affection for "that long borderline between the savage and the civil, the wild and the domestic," as he told CA. His books include the biographies A Himalayan Ornithologist: The Life and Work of Brian Houghton Hodgson and Richard Meinertzhagen: Soldier, Scientist, and Spy, as well as books about travel writers, bird watchers, and European colonialism. Richard Meinertzhagen recounts the life of its titular subject. Born in 1878 in England, Meinertzhagen worked as a soldier, intelligence officer, naturalist, and adventurer. He recorded his experiences in a voluminous journal, a massive amount of information that Cocker handles "deftly and knowledgeably," in the words of New Statesman contributor Alan Judd.
While critics often find Meinertzhagen's writings interesting, they sometimes doubt the veracity of his claims. Writing about Meinertzhagen and other men of his ilk, Judd added that "it is also an achievement to chronicle them so sympathetically and objectively in an age which is reluctant to believe in such men." Reviewing the same work in the Observer, Piers Brendon noted that Cocker "is apt to give his subject more credit for insight and originality than he deserves," but commented that Cocker's arguments are "generally sound." Concluding his review of Richard Meinertzhagen in the Times Literary Supplement, David Pryce-Jones wrote that "this book fascinates, not least in its melancholy sense of what is lost when great men of this type are made out to be liars and nuisances."
In Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century Cocker chronicles the lives of a number of British travel writers—including Eric Bailey, Lawrence Durrell, Harry St. John Philby, Laurens van der Post, Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Gavin Maxwell—and consequently examines the psychology of travelers. According to Cocker: "In the interior landscape of the traveler, Britain seemed to represent, and to place on his or her experience, some kind of limitation.… The central, unifying principle in travel books is that abroad is always a metaphysical blank sheet on which the traveler could write and rewrite the story, as he or she would wish it to be."
Critics gave Loneliness and Time mixed reviews. Some reviewers appreciated the opportunity to read about the travelers' adventures, but faulted Cocker for not providing sufficient analysis of these tales. Spectator contributor Philip Glazebrook wrote that Cocker does not adequately explain the travelers' motivations: "How it is that such a passion comes to possess a man, seems to be a question that gives rise only to unenlightening guesses." Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Jennifer Howard noted that while Loneliness and Time lacks a cohesive narrative, it "does suggest some of the vitality behind the ongoing British compulsion to travel for travel's sake."
In a sharp departure, Cocker next turned to the darker side of European exploration, focusing on the conquistadors, soldiers, and colonial officials who traveled not for travel's sake, but to plunder and exploit, and in some cases exterminate. In Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples Cocker examines the nearly genocidal conquests of the Aztecs, the Tasmanians, the Apaches, and the Namibians. By choosing these examples, widely separated in time and place, each conducted by a different Western power, Cocker reveals a pattern that sometimes eludes historians. These "chilling tales… are not only riveting but manage to suggest a convincingly unitary way of reimagining global history. If the acted-upon were disparate, the exterminatory urge of the West over centuries had a remarkable sameness to it," explained Nation reviewer Tom Engelhardt. According to Cocker, these brutal conquests foreshadowed the savagery that would eventually explode in the heart of Europe in the two World Wars and the Holocaust. Some critics questioned Cocker's sweeping theme. While noting the value of remembering these brutal episodes, Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, asked in a Washington Post Book World review, "But is Cocker implying that colonialism always meant genocide? This is certainly not so." Others criticized Cocker's overuse of tribalism, particularly as applied to the multi-ethnic Aztec Empire. "The details and evocation of horror are the book's strength. Its major flaw is the misuse of the word tribal, which Cocker does not define," concluded Library Journal reviewer Joyce Ogburn. Similarly, Ronald Wright concluded in the Times Literary Supplement, "The most powerful theme of Mark Cocker's book is not so much his shaky essentialist dichotomy between Europeans and 'tribal' peoples, but his vivid map of the hell into which people can so easily descend when they have the ideology, means and opportunity."
Cocker returns to more peaceful travelers, and a very different kind of tribal culture, in Birders: Tales of a Tribe. Here, Cocker's subject is the people who will drop everything to catch a glimpse of a pileated woodpecker or a very off-course Guatemalan warbler that has appeared in England. Carefully distinguishing among the many subgroups, from dedicated "twitchers" to sentimental "robin-strokers," Cocker "defines bird-watching jargon… and relates stories of legendary figures in the world of birding to those outside the circle," explained a Publishers Weekly contributor. Not that it is all sweetness and light, as Cocker includes tales of twitchers who have come to grief pursuing rare birds in dangerous areas of the world and "stringers" whose sightings have been exposed as frauds, the greatest sin in birder culture. But the heart of the book is the affectionate appreciation of a growing subculture. At the same time, he relates his own "amusing coming-of-age-with-birds story," in the words of Booklist reviewer Nancy Bent, taking him from his teenage years when his hobby embarrassed him to an adulthood increasingly caught up in chasing down rare species with like-minded companions. "Explaining why you are obsessed with a world that passes most people by is not an easy task. But with a mixture of well-chosen anecdotes and self-deprecating humour, Cocker succeeds in making even the most hardened cynic appreciate his passion," concluded Guardian Weekly reviewer Stephen Moss.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cocker, Mark, Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1992.
Booklist, April 15, 2002, Nancy Bent, review of Birders: Tales of a Tribe, p. 1369.
Guardian Weekly, July 28, 2001, Stephen Moss, "The Wings of Desire," p. 9.
Library Journal, May 1, 2000, Joyce Ogburn, review of Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Conquest of Indigenous Peoples, p. 130.
Nation, October 23, 2000, Tom Engelhardt, "The Cartography of Death," pp. 25-34.
New Statesman, June 23, 1989, Alan Judd, review of Richard Meinertzhagen: Soldier, Scientist, and Spy, pp. 37-38.
Observer (London, England), June 18, 1989, Piers Brendon, review of Richard Meinertzhagen, p. 44.
Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of Birders, p. 51.
Spectator, November 14, 1992, Philip Glazebrook, review of Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century, p. 38.
Times Literary Supplement, August 11-17, 1989, David Pryce-Jones, review of Richard Meinertzhagen, p. 870; July 17, 1998, Ronald Wright, "Hell Is Us," p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, April 18, 1993, Jennifer Howard, review of Loneliness and Time, p. 4; May 14, 2000, Adam Hochschild, "Evil Empires," p. 8.