“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of The Narcissus
The life and work of Joseph Conrad, it seems, was a huge influence on Gavin Young.
If the quote above inspired Gavin Young’s journalism and writing, the following quote from Conrad’s short story, Youth inspired Young’s desire to live, travel and to see the world:
I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, too soon, too soon – before life itself.
At the outset of In Search of Conrad, Young recalls that passage being read aloud to him during his school days and being intoxicated by this stirring summons “to wake up and start living”. Gavin Young did just that.
After a period of national service following the Second World War, Young started working for a firm of ship brokers in Iraq. It was while he was there that he met explorer Wilfred Thesiger, with whose encouragement he visited Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and subsequently spent two years living with them. In a letter to his mother Thesiger commented:
Gavin Young who works with a firm in Basra and is keen to see something of Arab tribal life has been with me for a week … He is a nice lad and I am always glad to help anyone who is keen on this sort of life.
An encounter with Wilfred Thesiger was not the only thing Young had in common with Eric Newby, another famous post-war travel writer.
Young was steered towards journalism by Ian Fleming when they met in a bar in Tangiers in the 1950s. Turning down an offer from Fleming to join The Sunday Times, Young joined the Observer at the end of the 1950s, as had Newby and spent the next 30 years covering wars and revolutions in Angola, Nagaland, Cambodia, Iran and Yemen as well as enjoying spells as the newspaper’s correspondent in New York and Paris.
His subsequent travel books, Slow Boats to China (a journey by 23 vessels from Greece to China) and Slow Boats Home (his return to England by boat via the South Seas, Cape Horn and West Africa) were better received but is was with In Search of Conrad that Young was, in 1991, awarded the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award (later becoming the Dolman Best Travel Book Award and then the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year).
As its title suggests, In Search of Conrad is a literary pilgrimage. In this engrossing book, Young talks of his lifelong obsession with Conrad’s books and his literary quest to seek out the world and characters which inhabit Conrad’s novels Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim; the men who:
have tinged with romance the region of shallow waters and forest-clad islands that life far east and still mysterious between the deep waters of two oceans.
Young explains how Conrad was a reader first (“I don’t know what would have become of me if I had not been [a reading boy]”), before he became a traveller and seaman and then settled in England after 20 years at sea to pour his experiences into his writing.
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there. Marlow in The Heart of Darkness
He follows Conrad’s journeys to the East in search of the places he visited and looking for clues about the stories and adventurers who inspired both characters and plots in his novels.
Young’s quest takes him on journeys across the Java Sea, through the Gulf of Siam, and to the Makassar Straits visiting Bangka, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Celebes (now Sulawesi), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. It is a fascinating journey not only for its literary investigation but for the places Young visits including some still remote places which only now, through the advent of budget airlines in Southeast Asia, are becoming more accessible to travellers.
Young’s own enthusiasm for Conrad’s books, history and travel is infectious and it was easy to feel drawn into his quest. Relying on Norman Sherry’s (Graham green’s biographer) as well as his own investigations Young brings enigmatic characters from Conrad’s novel into sharper focus with biographical detail and historical description of 19th century life in Southeast Asia.
Young effortlessly blends his own travelogue and descriptions of the East with Conrad’s own, slipping between Conrad’s time and his own. Pre-empting any charge of plagiarism, Young calls it a collaboration. It is effective and lends parts of the book a dreamlike quality.
For readers who have been inspired to visit places to experience what they have read on the page, or for anyone with an interest in less visited places Southeast Asia, this is an excellent read.
Young’s other books include Worlds Apart, a collection of essays and journalism, From Sea to Shining Sea, about America, A Wavering Grace, about Vietnam and Beyond Lion Rock, the story of Cathay Pacific Airways. Gavin Young died in 2001.
THINGS near us are seen life-size, and distance, while it enchants the imagination, destroys the reality. That is a good reason why those who want to know the truth about the world should travel.
Francis Wrigley Hirst was a British journalist and writer. Born in 1873, Wrigley Hirst was editor of The Economist from 1907 to 1916. Unsurprisingly, most of his writings were about trade, economics and politics.
This essay appeared in a 1913 collection called The Six Panics & other essays. It is ironic that Hirst should write about modern travel and the ease with which it can be undertaken just as the outbreak of the First World War was about to make travel in Europe more difficult. Two of the six ‘panics’ in the collection relate to dreadnoughts and airships while another chapter discusses the Balkan Wars which served as a prelude for the First World War, which makes the pice on travel seem even more oddly placed.
I stumbled across Hirst’s essay in the excellent 1913 by Charles Emmerson, a history offering a different perspective on that year. Rather than view 1913 through the prism of the war which followed it, Emmerson looks at 23 citiess around the world and tries to view those cities as they might have been seen at the time, modern and full of possibilities.
Emmerson quotes Hirst’s essay at the start of his introduction and uses it and the experience of travel it conveys to highlight how modern and globalised the world of 1913 was.
Ever the economist, Hirst writes about general trends in travel among those who travel for commercial purposes and emigrants who travel in search of work. Profit and Labour are his preoccupations. Even when discussing those who travel for pleasure, he observes that is a supply of good facilities and transport networks (which exist because of capital’s ceaseless search for a return) that drives tourist demand. Despite his economic perspective, Hirst is no advocate of travel as mere consumer pastime.
If it were not for books, telegrams, and letters, Australia or China would look smaller and less important to the average Englishman than his neighbour’s field. And even with the aid of books and newspapers it needs a large stock of intelligent sympathy to understand countries and peoples one has never seen. But invention is fast removing the physical obstacles to knowledge of the world.
Hirst sketches an impressive picture of a globalised, connected world in which travel is becoming ever more easy and comfortable. However, this is accompanied by a concern that as the volume of travel increases, its benefits will decrease.
But what of the modern tourist? Is he as good a man as his predecessor, who faced so much more risk and discomfort a hundred years ago? Comparisons no doubt are difficult, but there is room to fear that against a great increase in the volume must be set some decrease in the advantages of travel…Your modern traveller may pass with every luxury by day and a comfortable berth at night to any city in Europe, and there reside in a luxurious hotel, surrounded by cosmopolitan attendants, who know nothing and care less of the city or country in which they are accumulating tips.
His concern is that a traveller could move around the world from one luxurious hotel to another, in a sort of bubble, with no better knowledge of a place than its hotels and restaurants.
After travelling in this way from one grand hotel to another, he may return from his trip in blissful ignorance of the language, the people, the habits, and prejudices of the country he has visited. He and his like have seen sights and compared hotels, but that is the whole story. In short, they are only tourists conducted or unconducted. Innocent they went and innocent they return of languages, institutions and laws other than their own. In the old days travelling was slow, uncomfortable and comparatively dangerous; but it was also comparatively instructive.
For Hirst, travel should aspire to something more. What matters is to experience other places. Relying on books and descriptions is not enough. Only by visiting other countries, by learning some of the language can one understand the culture and be better informed about world afffairs without falling prey to “malevolent journalism”.
Hirst’s essay is a call to action. We can learn a foreign language to read books to understand other places and cultures although as modern invention has made travel easier and more comfortable than ever, we have no need to confine our understanding of places to what we read about them. We can instead travel to them and, rather than learning a language to read books, use it to read men and gain experience. Whether our journeys are “civilizing and liberalizing” rather than leaving us “boastful and ignorant” depends on the nature and quality of the encounters travellers have and the mindset with which they approach their travels.
Hirst distills the classic essays on travel and quotes from Hazlitt, Claudian, Bacon, Sterne and Feltham in his search for guidance about how we should travel: “Experience is the best informer”; “[travel] makes a wise man better, and a fool worse”; “the more you hurry, the less you see”; wondering whether it is better to travel alone or with a companion; the importance of travelling among and socialising with people of all classes from the place visited rather than spending time with fellow compatriots in first class.
Hirt’s essay is about travel as a civilising and improving influence, something from which a great deal can be gained with a little thought and effort about how one goes about it. It is not unlike advice commonly seen about how we could all make better travellers. Indeed, Hirst says it is difficult to improve on the old essays and, reading his essay, it is hard to disagree with him.
Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is one of those books which you know of and have an idea of what they are about but then never quite get around to reading. Then, when you do, you wonder why it took you so long.
Tracks is Davidson’s account of her 2,700 kilometre, 9 month solo journey across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. Although raised on a cattle farm from the age of four, Davidson had few practical skills which would assist her and so she spent two years, including doing a dummy run of 300km before attempting her longer 1977 journey.
I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.
I’ve seen Tracks on the shelves in bookshops and referred to in the lists of best or favourite travel books but, if I’m honest, hadn’t paid it too much attention until I recently came across a video on Deskbound Traveller, the site of Michael Kerr, journalist with The Daily Telegraph.
The video is a TEdX video of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer assigned to photograph Davidson’s journey which he did by periodically locating her along her route. He would then spend a few days with her before leaving, not knowing whether she would be alive the next time he came to look.
Rick Smolan’s talk is an unassuming yet jaw dropping insight to a quite extraordinary journey and watching this video has ensured that Tracks is now firmly on my ever-growing to read list. A separate book of Ricka Molan’s photographs is also available:
Smolan’s TEDX talk seems to be a re-run of a better edited version with more imagery available on National Geographic‘s website and also on Youtube:
Throughout the trip I kept saying to Robyn you need to keep a journal because someday you’re going to want to write a book about this and she said why do you have to turn everything into a product like why can’t you just experienced things and not always be filtering it and recording it and documenting it like you’re never there because you’re always outside looking in at it so when she called me and said she written a book I was like you’re kidding me…
Despite initial reluctance, Robyn obviously went on to write about her journey. A National Geographic article appeared in 1978 and the book followed in 1980, published by Jonathan Cape. Tracks was awarded the first Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980. It is in good company as the list of subsequent winners of that award (it has been the Dolman Best Travel Book Award since 2006) reads like a who’s who of travel writing from the last 40 years.
In the course of writing Tracks, Davidson became friends with Doris Lessing and, according to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, also with travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, an encounter which resulted in Rushdie leaving his wife for the woman Chatwin called “my friend the ‘camel lady'”.
There are videos available online with Robyn Davidson talking about her experience which are worth watching. Davidson has interesting observations on the objectification of her trip by others as well as nomadic culture and, in this interview, tips on how to work with camels:
MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.
Robyn Davidson has written other travel books, including a book of essays, Travelling Light, Desert Places, about nomadic cultures and an anthology of travel writing published by Picador, Journeys.
We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.
Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.
Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”
True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general.
Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.
Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.
You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.
As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.
Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.
Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However, Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel. Why do we do it in the first place?
“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put.
In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”
Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.
Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.
Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel. The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.
By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.
When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually. According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists. More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.
The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.
So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?
Not necessarily. In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist:
Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.
Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”
Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion. Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.” The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd. Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”
Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels. He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it. Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others. While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them. It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.
Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way. That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.
Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.
For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”
I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have.
Roald Dahl is famous as the author of acclaimed children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny Champion of the World and, of course, Revolting Rhymes all of which were among my favourite books when I was growing up.
Going Solo, however, is non-fiction and is the second of Dahl’s two short autobiographical works. The first, Boy recalls his childhood and school days. Going Solo finds Dahl leaving home and England to find his way in the world as an employee of the Shell oil company in an African outpost of the British Empire. A companion volume to both is Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother.
The PSES (now the British Exploring Society and part of the Royal Geographical Society) was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, who was a member of Captain Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13. The expedition which Dahl joined involved hiking through Newfoundland carrying a 114lb pack and involved experimenting with eating boiled lichen and reindeer most supplement their meagre rations.
Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after leaving school, Dahl told Plomley that he knew at the very least that he wanted to “get a job that will take me to distant lands.”
You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magical lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more. But it was a very different matter in 1933. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)
Dahl went for an interview with Shell to join its Eastern Staff. One of 5 successful interviewees out of 60 candidates, Dahl believed that Shell’s board of directors had been impressed by his school prize for heavyweight boxing.
Dahl’s Shell Company interview, his trip to Newfoundland and early working days in London as a businessman are covered in Boy:
The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer, His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)
Dahl also described in Boy how he had been offered and turned down a position in Egypt:
What I wanted was jungles and lions and elephants and tall coconut palms swaying on silvery beaches, and Egypt had none of that. Egypt was desert country. It was bare and sandy and full of tombs and relics and Egyptians and I didn’t fancy it at all.
Within a week of turning down Egypt, Dahl was offered East Africa and Going Solo picks up his story after the Shell interview and the completion of two years’ training in the UK and joins Dahl on his way to Mombasa in 1938 aboard the SS Mantilla.
Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.
Only 22 years old, Dahl was headed for Tanganyika (what is now broadly Tanzania) and Dar es Salaam, where he learned Swahili, shook scorpions from his boots, contracted malaria, visited sisal plantations and diamond mines and “saw that chaps had the right type of lubricating oil for machinery.”
Dahl was in East Africa for only a short time when the Second World War broke out. Dahl saw active service in North Africa, Greece and Palestine before being invalided back to the UK.
From there he was sent to Washington DC and formed part of British intelligence’s efforts to persuade the United States to join the war. It was in Washington and after a meeting with CS Forester that Dahl began to write.
At the end of the war, Dahl resigned from the Shell company and started his writing career. The rest, as they say, is history.
Going Solo focuses on Dahl’s time in East Africa and as a pilot in the Second World War. It contains entertaining descriptions of his journey out to Africa and the colonial/empire types he meets on board as well as his brief period working in Tanganyika where he encountered lions and black mambas. This part of Going Solo is relatively short although, as Dahl frankly acknowledged:
any job, even if it is in Africa, is not continuously enthralling, I have tried to be as selective as possible and have written only about those moments that I consider memorable.
Dahl, however, sells his East African experience short in his foreword to Going Solo. A volume of Dahl’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock, was published in 2016 under the title Love From Boy.
These letters containfunny and candid glimpses of Dahl’s experiences in Africa, from daily routines, nights getting ‘whistled’ at the Dar es Salaam club, drinking coconut milk and gin, fancy dress parties, living 50 yards from the beach in a villa with staff, snooker, golf, cinema visits, dinners with colonels, breakfasts of tea and an orange and hours spent listening to the wireless or symphonies on his gramophone:
It looks as though [my drinks bill] may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper [drunkard]
As the Second World War draws closer, both Going Solo and the letters in Love from Boy chart the rising tensions with the East African German community. In one letter, Dahl recounts an evening spent throwing darts at photos of Hitler and Goebbels, reporting:
There’s the hell of a showdown – you see there are so many Germans in this place & everything is rather on the boil – we seemed to have squeezed the bugger…Moral: Don’t throw darts at Hitler’s Balls in public they’re private parts.
After a brief spell in the King’s African Rifles rounding up Germans in East Africa at the outbreak of the war, Dahl drove 600 miles to Nairobi at the end of 1939 where he enlisted as an airman and completed his basic pilot training.
He writes about the “marvellous fun” of flying over Africa and viewing the Rift Valley’s volcanic craters, lakes, villages, flamingos, wildebeest and giraffes and how, in Iraq where he underwent further training, tribesmen took potshots at the planes from the hills.
While in Iraq, Dahl took a photograph of the Arch of Ctesiphon while flying a biplane, for which he was given a bronze medal by the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo. His letters also describe sightseeing trips to Cairo, the Pyramids and to Babylon and detail the daily hazards of life in Iraq from scorpions, snakes, the flooding of the Euphrates and the Bedouin.
After Iraq, Dahl was posted to North Africa and then to Greece where he took part in the Battle for Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter before being evacuated to Egypt. From Suez, he drove alone up to Haifa where he rejoined his squadron and the Syrian Campaign against the Vichy Airforce.
It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome.
Going Solo is primarily a wartime memoir but evokes the places he is posted at that particular time from colonial life in East Africa, drinking retsina and eating olives in Greece and encountering Jewish refugees in (then) Palestine. His letters in Love from Boy give more of a feel for daily life, are amusing and well worth a read.
Dahl’s descriptions of air battles in Going Solo are exhilarating although his enthralment with flying is tempered by sober descriptions of how only 3 of the 16 men he trained with survived the war, comrades who were killed and the long odds of surviving as a wartime pilot.
However, before reading Going Solo, I hadn’t appreciated that Dahl was nearly among those who died following a near fatal crash in North Africa which left him badly burned and temporarily without sight.
This crash has been credited with starting Dahl’s writing career. According to Ronald Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock:
A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing. (from Roald Dahl: the plane crash that gave birth to a writer by Donald Sturrock, published in The Daily Telegraph, 9 August 2010)
Dahl himself once said of the incident:
It’s my cosy little theory, that because i was a fairly square young chap intent on a happy business life with the Shell Company and that I started writing soon after that maybe the head helped. (from Roald Dahl: In His Own Words)
Dahl continued travelling in later life including to Japan as part of his work on the film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Dahl also worked on the screenplay for the film of Fleming’s childrens’ story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
He went onto to become a highly successful writer of children’s and adult fiction. In relation to his writing, Dahl thought of himself primary as an entertainer but also tried his best to teach children to love reading books:
My crusade is to teach small children to love books so much that it becomes a habit and they realise that books are worth reading.
Books, if you are going to be anything, are vital in life.
For more on Roald Dahl’s life, listen to this edited selection of interviews (or click on embedded player below) covering different episodes from his life and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as Roald Dahl: In HIs Own Words as part of the BBC’s Roald Dahl at 100 season.
Alternatively, try Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl (which was also serialised in The Telegraph, here) or Sturrock’s edited collection of Dahl’s correspondence to his mother which is an excellent and essential companion to Boy and Going Solo and contains letters from his Newfoundland trip, time in East Africa and his war years. There is also Jennet Conant’s history, The Irregulars, which focuses on Roald Dahl’s time in Washington DC.
The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time.
Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.
Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.
He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world. He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him. Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911. Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword tothat book:
Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper. He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made. Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.
The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:
Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.
After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone. He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service: Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921).
Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina. His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.
Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family). Franck died in 1962.
All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books. Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.
Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey.
There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths. He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today. He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927.
Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.
However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently. Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment. Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).
While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:
The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing.
Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:
You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”
When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today. Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:
prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.
Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:
That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.
All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be. It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:
Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.
All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy. For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.
A voice in the haze ruminated about “the financial terrorism” that led to Greece’s economic crisis. An elegant old woman sipped her glass of ouzo, rolled a cigarette, and swiped away the political doomsaying. She had the watchful look of experience. “We will be okay,” she said.
Certainly there is a better way to inspire civic engagement than giving voice to fanatics, flirting with fascism, lurching from one humiliation to the next, and allowing very real lives to be destroyed along the way.
In a thoughtful series of sketches accompanied by rich and haunting black and white images, James Reeves reflects on Trump’s ascendancy, democracy, tyranny and nationalism and the economic crisis that continues to ravage Greece.
At the Agora and Parthenon, in cafes, in orthodox churches and on the streets of Athens Reeves, who is a writer and teacher of philosophy and history, contemplates the pendulum shift from a semi-rational world to one which is more unpredictable and full of anxiety.
Yet in a country where tourists come to view the decayed ruins of ancient democracy and look back in time, Reeves finds a country looking to its future, with optimism and hope expressed in the grafitti on the city’s walls.
Let the streets be a feast of art for all. And if all this comes to pass…everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (billboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.
Drawing on the the Biblical metaphor of the fall of Babylon and the writing on the wall as a parallel, Reeves senses the ending of an old world ending and finds himself anxious to return to the US and to participate in what must come next.
The islands are almost eerily void of man-made sound. The wind whistles, the sheep bellow, the waves crash against the coastline and rearrange the stones, clapping and cracking as they roll around. The quiet is instantly comforting and sets forth the pace of life here without you even having to think about it.
As Tom Robbins in The Financial Times explained, these new magazines:
share a distinct look and approach, their similarities emphasising how different they are to the glossy mainstream titles. Produced by independents rather than big publishing houses, they are typically quarterly or biannual rather than monthly, and usually cost at least £10. Many have gnomic one-word names; covers are simple and striking, stripped of attention-grabbing cover lines; the paper is usually heavy, expensive and matt.
All have websites, naturally. Some have online content (and some more than others). Some are available as electronic editions through apps such as Readbug, as downloads from their websites or own apps. But, what really sets them apart is their commitment to print editions. These are different though to Wanderlust, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Lonely Planet Traveller or NatGeo Traveller.
Sometimes seen as part of a ‘slow journalism’ movement, their publication cycle is deliberately less frequent and the print editions lovingly created, something to be treasured rather than left on a train. Not widely available in shops, I am fortunate that a handful of places in central London carry a decent range of these new magazines.
Published twice a year, Boat focuses on a different place for each issue (usually a city) with the editorial team relocating there for several weeks to research and work with locals to produce the content. Boat calls this its ‘inside/out approach’, with locals deciding “what they want the world to know about their city” to ensure that perspectives on the places are “varied and balanced”. This allows Boat to ‘dig deep’ in each place they cover, to meet the locals and avoid “the typical fly-by top 10 lists, tourist hotspots or new openings”.
Ancient literature describes a mythical island kingdom called Thule where “the sun goes to rest” and “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three. It has been suggested that the Faroe Islands were in fact this mythical place.
For its latest outing, Boat visited the Faroe Islands, a group of 18 volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. The islands are self governing although formally part of Denmark.
In this superb issue, Boat covers everything from local culinary traditions, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant, alternative night life, the origin of the islands’ architecture (intersting given the absence of wood-producing trees), its LBGT movement, the struggle for women’s rights, sustainable approaches to aquaculture and power generation as well of course its resurgent wool and knitwear industry and the lives of the islands’ shepherds.
The feeling of loneliness is a mental state. It’s not dependent on the number of people alongside you, but instead your relationships with them.
Boat travels to the Faroes’ most remote parts and, in one of the centrepiece features – Of Land and Sea – Fred Scott takes the twice weekly helicopter to the least populated island, Stóra Dímun, which is home to just 8 out of the 50,000 or so people in the Faroe Islands, and hears the captivating story of Eva and Jógvan and their two children who run Stóra Dímun’s sheep farm.
In another feature, Tom Eagar visits the Faroes’ most westerly island, Mykines, home to only 10 people but hundreds of thousands of sea birds including puffins, which can be viewed either on a cliff or on a plate in the local cafe. Perched at the tip of the island in this remote archipelago and surrounded only by sea, Tom Eagar observes:
It’s rare that you’re ever able to see so far and in so many directions. That may sound like a frivolous observation, but even the grandest of landscaeps are filled with things: mountains, forest, lakes, land – just stuff. Out here, facing west, it feels like we’re half way between the world and forever.
Boat covers all this through almost twenty insightful stories accompanied by beautiful images and videos on its website. The pieces are strong on local voice, allowing the islanders to tell their own stories and give their perspective, revealing a real sense of the Faroes and what life there is like.
This is one to settle in with for an afternoon, to savour and get lost in with some Teitur, Konni Kass or even Carl Neilsen’s Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands on the stereo. I’m looking forward to see how Boat top this and, well, to those harbingers keen to pronounce the end of good travel writing, pish!
Camus’s quote is more about being outside the comfort zone of our normal daily lives than a prescription to embark on dangerous adventures to incite a state of anxiety.
Explaining that adherence to routine can lessen our capacity for happiness, travel plays a valuable role in breaking that routine:
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
Camus expressed a similar idea in his notebooks:
What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.
Rather than happiness, therefore, Camus tells us it is awareness we should wish for.
As Maria Popova puts it, “Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness” and travel can bring us out of that trance.
While we should not waste time, simply filling time or being busy is not the same as not wasting it “if in doing so one loses oneself.”
Therefore while travel can help heighten awareness, it is important to think about how we travel and whether we are simply filling time and losing ourselves, if we want to reap its full benefit.
It is intersting to note that when travelling and being stripped of all that is familiar, we are likely to fel ‘soul-sick’ and that travel is an experience which can bring ‘contradictory intoxications’.
Those interested in Camus’ writing on place should seek out his Algerian Chronicles. While more a collection of reportage and political pieces than a traditional work of travel writing, Algerian Chronicles explores an exile’s relationship with the country of his birth as it undergoes a period of crisis.
Algerian Chronicles is a selection of Camus’ journalism about Algeria written over 20 years from 1939 “when almost no one in France was interested in the country, to 1958, when everyone is talking about it.”
It was compiled and published in 1958 in response to the Algerian War at a time when Camus felt desparate about the country’s future and was torn between two positions:
These texts summarize the position of a man who, having confronted the Algerian plight from the time he was very young, tried in vain to sound the alarm and who, being long aware of France’s responsibility in the matter, could not approve of either a conservative or an oppressive policy – from Camus’s Preface to Algerian Chronicles.
The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me, one where memories and names are preserved in measured spaces, the other where the wind and sand erases [sic] all trace of men on the open ranges.
The first section of Algerian Chronicles explores the economic causes of the crisis through articles written in 1939 describing the famine in Algeria’s Kabylia region. Their publication led to Camus’ first exile as he was forced to look for work outside of Algeria (although he soon returned).
The other pieces were written from the perspective of an outsider, albeit one intimately familiar with the country, or at least from the the perspective of someone caught between two places, and examine the development of the crisis, assess its (then) current state and propose a possible solution.
“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city. —Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959 (quoted in Claire Messud’s review for NYRB)
The New York Times‘ review of Algerian Chronicles is available here, Jermey Harding’s review for The London Review of Books is here and The LA Review of Books‘ review is here.
Thanks to a caffeine break atKioskafenear Paddington while cycling to work one morning last week, I stumbled across two Good Things.
The first is a journal called Elsewhere. Founded and edited by Berlin-based Paul Scraton and Julia Stone, Elsewhere is “dedicated to involved and intelligent writing about place, whether from travel writers or local ramblers, deep topographers or psychogeographers, overland wanderers or edgeland explorers.”
One of a growing number of new print travel publications, Elsewhere is published twice a year and is now in its third year. The latest issue has essays about places as diverse as Papua, Portugal and Prague and its fifth issue must be due fairly soon.
Curious to know more, a quick search revealed that Elsewhere‘s website has a blog featuring a regular monthly ‘postcard’, a book review and essay such asthis piece about Copenhagen by Laura Harkerin which she examines the preconceptions we have about places gleaned from TV, film and books and what happens to those preconceptions when we actually visit them.
The Elsewhere blog led me to the second Good Thing, the Papertrail Podcast, a monthly podcast series in which Alex Blott, its founder, interviews authors and creatives about three of their favourite books.
Anyway, it turns out that Alex’smost recent Papertrail interviewwas with Elsewhere co-founder Paul Scraton who selected three books about places. I settled in an ordered another coffee.
Scraton’s first choice of book was What I Saw, a collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, written in Berlin between 1920 and 1933. Interestingly, it is translated from a German collection, Roth in Berlin, which was subtitled ‘A Reader for Walkers’.
Athough appearing in newspapers, the pieces are taken from the feuilleton supplement, the section which contained more literary writing and criticism than the news sections.
The original German version of Roth in Berlin contained a practical dimension which, Scraton explains, acted as walking guides. Those parts are omitted from the translation, largely because many places described no longer exist but, for Scraton, the book still served as an introduction to Berlin and some of its stories when he moved to Berlin about 15 years ago.
The Guardian‘s review of What I Saw ishereand The NY Times‘ review ishere.
Scraton’s second choice was Jan Morris’ ‘last’ book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere in which the story of the city is intertwined with Jan Morris’ own story, looking back over 50 years. AsThe New Yorkerput it:
[Jan Morris] who first visited Trieste as a young soldier in 1946 and last as an elderly woman, plumbs the mysteries of the city’s melancholy, and the result is a meditation on the locus of the self and its confabulation of psychic history and accidents of geography.
In the course of an appreciative discussion about the book and Trieste itself in the Papertrail interview, Paul Scraton describes it as:
a powereful book about place, but also about writing and about how we interact with a place as individuals.
To read more about Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, see The Guardian‘s reviewhereand The Observer‘s reviewhere. The last book, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, is a novel about “the disintegration of a country and the disintregation of a family at the same time”. In this short novel, author Vladan Borojevic tells the story of young man who believed his father to have died during the civil war following the break up of Yugoslavia but, after discovering that he is not only alive but also on the run for war crimes, embarks on a journey around the Balkans to learn the truth about his father.
Three fascinating and excellent books and some interesting insights about how we understand places in layered ways and the way that other writers have understood a place can influence our own understanding, this is a podcast worth a listen.
Other podcasts in the Papertrails series can be foundhere, or on iTunes.
The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene Vintage, 1st published in 1939
Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed.
Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.
The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book. Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey.
Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.
Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.
Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly. His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.
The trip had a long gestation period. Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks. It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:
The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s. There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week. This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!
Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States. After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.
THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers… The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’.
Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.
Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”. That is a considerable understatement. Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans. Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects. He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey. Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect.
From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on. The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico. The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.
The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.
From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.
He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).
The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.
Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling:
What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]
Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.
Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts. Yet he seems to arrive back where he started. Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him. He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.
Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust. A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey:
The Brokpa, who are ethnically distinct from the Bhutanese, are a tribe of semi-nomadic yak herders. Up to now, the remote village of Merak could only be visited by undertaking a multi-day trek which went over a 4,300m pass. AJ Heath reports that that is about to change with the construction of the first road.
The traditional way of life and distinct cultures of rural communities like the Brokpa in Merak are at risk of disappearing. As communications improve, they lead to a desire for more modernised lifestyles. Electricity was introduced in 2012 which was followed by satellite TV and fridges and mobile phones.
In his article for Lightfoot Travel, AJ Heath noted:
As the majority are illiterate, I was fascinated to know how they put people’s names into their phones. One lady showed me that she used the emojis – ‘dog, dog, cat, heart’ was her son who lives in Thimphu and ‘cat cat heart heart’ was for her daughter.
AJ Heath’s project documents the Brokpa and their way of life, and the articles examine the change that completion of the new road will bring.
Their lives have not really changed in centuries, but change is coming and the change will happen very quickly. I wanted to capture this before it is lost.
As Bhutan develops, its people struggle to preserve their traditional way of life and unique identity as they look for diferent and/or easier ways to earn a living.
The road will increase tourism which will increase the incomes of the Brokpa. Paradoxically, tourism provides an incentive to maintain traditions but its increase will, in turn, also put more pressure on their traditional way of life as the Brokpa use that income to modernise and buy consumer goods.
There is an inevitable tension between the Brokpa’s desire to improve their lives and tourists’ yearning for things to remain as they are. In a bid to prevent the loss of culture as a result of modernisation, the Bhutanese government has introduced legislation to protect cultural traditions.
According to the articles, some fear that this could lead to unequal development within the country with some communites being preserved as living museums to satisfy lucrative tourist demand while other parts of the country are permitted to develop.
Travel in Bhutan is only possible as part of an organised tour, which costs around $250 a day, or $290 if travelling solo or in a pair. The rationale for this daily fee is to permit sustainable tourism which protects Bhutan’s land and culture while offering tourists an insight into a unique way of life. A portion of the fee is used by the government to fund roads, infrastructure, health and education programs.
While money from tourism plays a part in improving the country, the challenge for Bhutan will be how it manages not to distort development while maintaining that income; to keep both international visitors and Bhutan’s population satisfied.
While the tourists yearn for Bhutan to remain the same, Heath said that the Brokpa people welcomed the changes: “They all seemed very excited by the prospects of the new road being built. They thought it would improve their lives and that their living conditions would improve. The road would also bring in more tourists which will give them extra income to buys TVs and fridges.
In a country which places much stock in the idea of Gross National Happiness, only time will reveal the effect the road has on communities like Merak and whether the Bhutanese government and people are able to balance the competing demands of development, tourism and tradition.
And as I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey. (Edward Thomas)
Two contrasting pieces about cycling: a short film on the joys of cycling for pleasure as part of a group and a book on cycling for a living as a courier in London which touches on cycling’s darker, obssessive side.
We go cycling for pleasure, not penance.
Cyclists Special is a 1955 British Transport Film promoting the virtues of weekend cycling for pleasure using special Sunday train services, with their dedicated carriages for storing cycles and buffet cars supplying packed lunches.
Starting in Willesden Junction, London (a station close to my heart), cyclists take the train to Rugby where they begin a tour of parts of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicesterhire, exploring the countryside and taking in places of historical interest like Kenilworth Castle.
Once outside the town each group spins away on its own particular route, away from the main road into the peaceful countryside where tree lined lanes welcome these friendly positions that bring their exhaust smoke, no petrol fumes, no record or blaring horn. Only the humming of tires and the talk that arises between solicitor and carpenter, teacher and typesetter electrician and radiographer; between people of all ages ranks and station, who rediscover their common humanity in finding countryside, exercise and companionship all-in-one.
As well as bikes, Cyclists Special has ties, jackets, cloth caps, plus fours, pipes, Brylcreem, quifs and trouser ankles as clipped as the accents. Cheery and informative this enjoyable film celebrates the resorative effects of cycling in the country, spending time with people of different backgrounds and occupations, gaining different perspectives and breaking the routine.
There’s always a certain excitement about coming to a strange place. Over the years you may have trained yourself to arrive anywhere looking as bored as a bactrian camel but if you’re honest with yourself a new place sets you simmering as your home town never could…every place like every person has its own unique history and character.
Containing wisdom such as “a cycle tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint”, it is unmistakably a film of its time.
However, I love its inclusive sentiment and it reminded me of Alastair Humphries’ ‘anyone can do it’ attitude to adventure and his notion that adventure doesn’t have to be ultimate, epic or awesome. A bit like Al Humphries’ Fred Whitton challengeandThe Office #microadventurevideos, Cyclists Special is an antidote to “hype and hyperbole” and, as Al Humphries might say: “Everyone is invited – and that’s part of the magic of cycling.”
Jon Day’s book, Cyclogeography, on the other hand, emphasises a darker, though no less spell-binding, side of cycling and its focus is firmly on urban rather than rural cycling.
Day is a lectuer in English at King’s College London and spent several years as a cycle courier in London. Based on his experiences, Cyclogeography mixes memoir with pyschogeography, philosophy, history and literary diversions.
The title is a play on the term psychogeography which, according to Joseph Hart, “encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore.”
Day reflects on Baudelaire and the flâneurs‘ roles in understanding and portraying the urban environment by exploring it on foot, and joins Valeria Luiselli and Paul Fournel in speculating on the bicycle’s underrepresentation in travel writing and wondering why there is no cycleur equivalent to the flâneur.
Drawing on his cycle courier experiences, Day takes us on a journey through London to experience the city anew, and from the saddle. Weaving through gaps in trafffic, passageways, spaces beneath buildings and other unseen parts of the city, Day portrays the cycle courier as an outsider and someone who exists on the fringes of the city’s economic activity, practically inhabiting a parallel city to the one the rest of us live in.
Day’s writing is infectious and it is difficult not to be caught up in his excellent descriptions of how cycle couriers learn the city’s abstract properties, its rhythms, smells, signs and textures so that they eventually come “to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.”
Day examines the cyclist’s relationship with his machine, a life measured in revolutions and also describes the physical and mental impacts of cycling. One minute he is revelling in the “the sheer joy of being physically tired at the end of a day’s work”, “the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city” and “the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement”, and the next he is discretely vomitting by the side of the road after pushing himself in a street race and recounting stories about early competition cyclists whose obsession led to bodies ravaged by drugs and overexertion.
Along the way Day takes a number of diversions and examines cycling in a variety of forms including escape, observation, exploration and art. He meets artist Richard Long and writer Iain Sinclair, who voices his concerns about the changing nature of cycling, its politicisation and its shift from being subversive to becoming a colonising force in the city.
He also takes us on a literary journey, drawing on the work of writers like Jonathan Raban, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Rebecca Solnit, Samuel Beckett, Robert Macfarlane, Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells as well as Guy Debord and Roland Barthes. Drawing a parallel between writing and cycling, Day notes that:
The rhythms of movement provided by cycling seem perfectly suited to the writer’s need to notice. At bicycle-speed your eyes focus on a single scene as you glide past, and for a few seconds you can isolate one incident before you’re rolled onward. Then on to the next. The saccades of the eye’s snatch-and-focus synchronise with your velocity, flicking from rubbish bin to lamppost, from bus swerving out in front of you to pedestrian about to cross the road in front. The bicycle provides a road’s-eye view midway between the ponderous bus-gaze and the start/stop stress of the car. Driving, in the city at any rate, is binary, reverential distancing. Cycling flows, converting static and isolated glimpses of the city into a moving, zoetropic flicker of life.
Valeria Luiselli also noted this ‘cinemtaic’ quality of cycling in her Manifesto a Velo (from which Day quotes) noting that “the bicycle is not only noble in relation to body rhythms” but “is also generous to thought”. Contrasting the cyclist with the pedestrian, motorist and users of public transport, Luiselli concluded that, “skimming along on two wheels, the rider finds just the right pace for observing the city and being at once its accomplice and its witness.” I am reminded of the truth of this every time I go out on my bike in London.
Despite the exhilaration and infectious energy of the book, Day highlights a darker side of cycling, revealing the loneliness of the job, human contact reduced to voices over the radio and the margins of urban life, suicides, the obsessive nature of cyclists and their acceptance and deliberate running of physical risks from knackered knees to the ‘alleycat’ street races. However, even in its darker moments, Cyclogeography is a compulsive read.
But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.
Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.
The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.
An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.
A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.
From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.
I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.
With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.
Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.
I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.
Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.
He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.
He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”, “to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”
He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”
Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.
It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.
From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.
He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”
As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”
If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.
A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.
It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.
Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.
Everyone’s got their own distinctive voice and I think mine is very distinctive as it is strong and it is loud. I’m me, I got brought up like this and this is how I speak and if you don’t like it…
From Radio 4’s Seriously… documentary series, a fascinating journey into English accents and dialects across the length of Britain.
Jonnie Robinson, the British Library’s Lead Curator of Spoken English, takes the longest train journey in Britain and explores how accents change along the route.
Leaving Aberdeen in the morning and arriving in Penzance in the evening, Robinson’s journey reveals the range and diversity of accents as they change every 50 miles or so along the length of the 600-mile journey.
With only the minimum of interruption necessary to provide periodic and interesting background and context, Robinson allows the people he encounters to talk about themselves, their accents and the places they are from.
The result is not only an insight into regional accents but also a snapshot of the train’s main calling points blended with individual stories and personal reflections. This brings the documentary a warmth and personality as people discuss their accents, identity, how they view other accents along with positive and negative experiences associated with them.