A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler (2006), by Jason Roberts, is a biography of Englishman James Holman (1786-1857), whose career as a solo traveller, writer and social observer was prolific despite the fact that he had been left blind by an illness in his 20s.
Jay Hoffman-Forster, artistic director of Magnetic Asia, the company behind Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s biggest music festival, and the local edition of the Sónar electronic music celebration, explains how the book changed his life.
I read the book soon after it came out. It was introduced to me by a relative – I believe it was my brother. It had an interesting title and it just tickled me.
It’s an incredible book about this dude named James Holman who went completely blind when he was 25 years old. He managed to secure himself a position as a Naval Knight, which was kind of an unofficial position that didn’t really require any work, but it gave him free accommodation at Windsor Castle, on the outskirts of London, so he could just have taken it easy.
But Holman couldn’t handle this and became frustrated. I guess he could foresee his own demise. He went off to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study medicine. He faked having full sight during the interview and managed to graduate without anyone realising he was blind, apparently because of his uncanny ability to use his other senses to compensate. Holman then travelled around the world alone, covering 250,000 miles (400,000km), and visiting five continents and 200 different cultures.
Holman discovered that the act of travelling into the unknown offered respite from the agony. This was remarkable and inspiring due to his complete loss of vision, and because people didn’t really travel in those days. It deeply touched me; the notion of stepping into the chaos and confronting the unknown as a means to challenge his suffering was quite heroic.
I read the book just before the first Clockenflap festival, in 2008. I was inspired by how Holman refused to allow himself to be labelled and just cracked on. He was unbelievably tenacious and it’s hard to not be inspired by him. It all filtered down into a big mishmash of things that eventually resulted in Clockenflap.
Back in Holman’s day, people who were blind or had lost at least some physiological or cognitive functionality were labelled defective and just handed a begging bowl, but Holman refused to accept that. His strategy was to use a steel-tipped wooden cane to tap around his immediate environment and listen to the sounds: he developed echolocation.
Before this book, little had been written about Holman, who was famous in his lifetime but later fell into oblivion. A fellow renowned traveller even sought to discredit him by questioning how Holman was able to describe all these places if he was blind.
A Sense of the World and the exploits of Holman renewed my appetite for creative risk taking and I like to think that some of Holman’s spirit manifested through me when we were launching the festival.
The theme of the artists’ programme at Clockenflap this year is “Sensorium” (the sensory faculties considered as a whole), so I feel we’ve come full circle.