Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



Book: Foreign Faces by V.S. Pritchett

Foreign Faces
by V.S. Pritchett

Bloomsbury 2011 (first published 1964)

Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.

This collection of travel essays by VS Pritchett has one of the best opening lines of any travel collection.  

Not many travel writers would begin by proclaiming themselves to be an offensive traveller, but Pritchett does and has a point.  However, not wishing to be misunderstood he is careful to explain that he is not prejudiced, narrow-minded or someone who travels with unrealistic expectations.  

His point is more elementary; that the nature of travel is in some way offensive.  As if that was not enough, Pritchett confesses that he compounds this by virtue of being a writer before going on to list some of the offense he has caused.  

Reading this essay, it is tempting to think that Pritchett must be talking about other travellers.  After all, our own way of travel is sensitive to local cultures and respectful to the people we meet so surely could not cause deliberate offence.  Besides, we know what Evelyn Waugh knew – “we are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow”, right?  

Wrong.  Pritchett might single out tourists as the one true source of annoyance when travelling but he makes it quite clear that we, “hypocrite lectuers”, are offensive travellers too.  It is a point with which Paul Theroux seems to agree:

Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur…

from Ghost Train to an Eastern Star 

VS Pritchett may have viewed travel as offensive but that did not mean that he disapproved of it.  Far from it.

Although famous as a critic and author of short stories, Pritchett was an avid traveller and wrote several travel books.  His life is a classic example of the link between writing and travel on the one hand and being a writer and a traveller on the other. 

Paul Theroux picked up on this when writing about Pritchett shortly after his death in 1997:

A classic way to succeed in England, if you come from the wrong class or have the wrong accent, is to leave the country and go far away. That was Pritchett’s solution — and it worked for him as it has for many other English writers…France gave him a second language and inspired his short stories. Travel in Spain came soon after.

Foreign travel was crucial to Pritchett’s literary ambitions and Theroux quotes from one of Pritchett’s short stories to illustrate the similarity between being a traveller and writer and how both inhabit a place beyond frontiers.  Susan Sontag has also written about this from her own perspective in the eulogistic essay about Richard Halliburton’s travel books in the collection Where the Stress Falls.

Pritchett’s first book was in fact a travelogue, Marching Spain.  In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, Pritchett recalled that this book was accepted by the publisher only on the condition that he would also write a novel and so initially, it was travel and travel writing that drove his fiction even if fiction was the more commercially successful.

Obviously mindful that unfortunate events can be felicitous for travel writers, Pritchett recalled in the same interview how his first travelogue was not much than an account of a journey:

What I was really rather sorry about was that I had had no adventures…I always wondered how it was that Robert Stevenson always seemed to have adventures; why don’t I have adventures?

There is a parallel there with Foreign Faces in which Pritchett criss-crosses communist countries in eastern Europe, returns to Madrid and Seville and then goes farther afield to Turkey and Iran.  The essays are similarly marked by an absence of ‘adventure’ even though they are no less entertaining for it.

Pritchett’s essays on eastern Europe capture those places at a crucial time in the post war period between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and protests in Poland and the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  His essays are not political but reveal the variety in the countries and the differences in society, culture and character.

Sociable and curious he brings the places to life through the characters he meets.  Some of his more general comments can appear blunt or actually offensive (“Romania annoys from the beginning“), but they often serve simply to grab attention.  His essays are full of sharp observation and Pritchett gets to his point with an informal but incisive and clear style.  Although he may not spare them from his pen, Pritchett writes about people and places with humour and generosity and without being a snob.  This is particularly evident in the essay on Madrid when it is clear that he is writing with affection rather than meanness.  

The result is a charming and witty collection of essays and not at all offensive.

Foreign Faces is currently available on Amazon for Kindle for only £3.99.

Essay: Universities’ overland challenge

There is more to a road than the mud, the stones, the concrete slabs, and the tar that constitutes its surface.  (Lionel Gregory in the RCS Commonwealth Journal, 1972).

In this article from Cambridge University’s alumni magazine, former students recall an overland journey to India in the 1960s.

Their story is that of the first Commonwealth Expedition (Comex) which involved some 200 students from Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Oxford and Cambridge universities travelling in five coaches overland from the UK to India in 1965.  Along the way, they braved unpaid bills, poor or nonexistent roads, cholera and war.  Putting on cultural performances of music, singing and plays for their host countries, the students were often unaware of the political situation in the countries they travelled through.  

On the surface, it was a bit like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday or the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour except that it had the serious aim of helping British kids interact with Commonwealth kids. Gregory called his young fellow travellers his “army for peace”. (from The Scotsman newspaper)

Following the trail blazed by fare paying coach expeditions such as Garrow-Fisher’s Indiaman Tours and Swagman Tours and later made famous as the Hippy Trail, Comex had the loftier aim of promoting the multicultural ideals of the Commonwealth and attempting “to produce enlightened Commonwealth citizens and support multiracial understanding through international travel.”

Comex was conceived by Lionel Gregory, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army.  ‘Greg’ had been brought up in India and saw active service with the Ghurkas during the Second World War in Burma and later in Malaya.  In later life, Greg was instrumental in seeing up the Ten Tors competition which takes place annually in Dartmoor National Park.  Greg started Comex after conversations with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who happened to be a family friend.  Nehru died in 1964, but the first Comex took place the following year.  Further Comex expeditions took place over the next few years with the number of coaches growing to 20 by the third expedition.  For more on this interesting character, read Lionel Gregory’s obituary in the Scotsman here and obituary from the Royal Signals focussing on his military career, here.  Greg wrote several books about his experiences including  Crying Drums: The Story of the Commonwealth Expedition (1972), With a Song and Not a Sword. (1973), Together Unafraid (1979) and Journey of a Lifetime (1997).

In short, a brief and interesting article which gives a glimpse on a form of overland travel which is no longer possible.  Read it in Cam magazine with Issuu:

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.