Two Books & audio: Going Solo & Love from Boy – Roald Dahl’s adventures abroad


Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Published by Penguin (1986)

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 MedicineFantastic 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.

Interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs by Roy Plomley in 1979, Dahl talks about his early travelling life and how, aged 17, after finishing school he embarked on an adventure with the Public Schools Exploring Society.  


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 contain funny 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)

In this programme for BBC Radio 3 to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses the myth that Dahl made out of the crash and how his flying career and the accident influenced his work.  He also draws interesting comparisons with Antoine Saint-Exupéry, another celebrated aviator and children’s author.  


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.

      

Article & Book: Albert Camus on awareness, happiness, travel & Algeria

For what gives value to travel is fear

This well known quote attributed to Albert Camus often appears in lists of top travel quotes.

In this short but thought provoking article from the fantastic Brainpickings, Maria Popova puts that quote in its intended philosophical context by looking at Camus’ essay Love of Life from Lyrical and Critical Essays.

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.
In her excellent review of Algerian Chronicles for The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud picks up on this theme of Camus’ bifurcated spirit and how he wrote about it frequently, quoting him as saying:

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.

Book: Wanderings & excursions of a Prime Minister

The wanderlust is perhaps the most precious of all the troublesome appetites of the soul of man.

Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Prime Minister of the UK in 1924 and held the office on two further occasions in the period between the First and Second World Wars.  He is credited with being one of the three principal architects of the Labour Party in the UK.

337px-ramsay_macdonald_ggbain_35734

He was first elected to Parliament in 1906 but his opposition to the First World War saw him defeated, although he re-entered Parliament in 1922 in the post-war period. 

In the years following the First World War, MacDonald travelled around Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.   He wrote about his travels for a number of magazines, including the publication, Forward.   Some of those pieces (along with a number of essays from other publications) are collected together in a book published by Jonathan Cape in 1925 called Wanderings and Excursions. 

The book is split into four sections covering travels in the British Isles, travels abroad, political conferences abroad and portraits of politicians.  It is the first half of the book, covering about 200 pages which are most relevant to anyone with an interest in travel writing.

Sometimes one must flee from familiar things and faces and voices, from the daily round and the common task, because one’s mind becomes like a bit of green grass too much trod upon. It has to be protected and nursed, and it has to be let alone.

MacDonald is someone who apparently valued the escape and restorative aspects of travel and walking outdoors.  He paints a wonderful image of himself striding out across moor and mountain singing out loud before retiring to a pub with his pipe at the end of a day’s energetic walking reflecting on and comparing his physical efforts with those of his Victorian political heroes.

Travel for MacDonald did not just mean going abroad.  Proud of Scotland and its physical landscape, he could help but note that “no people doomed to remain confined within the limits of their own country have a richer storehouse of treasure to explore than have ours.” 

For the most part, he omits politics from his writing about places, confining himself to the sights, experience and his reaction to them.  

There are places – sometimes great cities like Rome, sometimes only buildings like the Tower of London or the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling – into which time and event have breathed the breath of life and they have become living souls. We think of them as brooding over their past and looking upon the generation around them with the detachment of one who endures in the midst of a world that is fussing, fuming, and passing into a shadow. They are too dignified to speak; they only muse and remember. Such is Constantinople.

He is, however, careful to point out that he is no tourist simply doing the rounds of the sights:

My readers must not assume that, though this journey brings us to new scenes day by day, scenes that revive in us childish delight, we do nothing but go from shrine to shrine. We are also trying to understand what is going on and what general drift there is in the conflicting currents of opinion, passion, and will that reveal themselves whenever we throw out a float to detect them.

When politics does creep in, he tends to be apologetic, although his observations are interesting:

One of the greatest curses of Capitalism is that it robs us of the faculty of enjoying a holiday. Keats, thinking of Burns, reflects how delicacy of feeling has to be deadened ‘in vulgarity and in things attainable,’ because, the more we are capable of knowing true joy, the more are we maddened by the poverty and emptiness of our lives. But I offend, for in worshipping the sun and the open air, one must not preach.

The essays cover travel to Egypt, Palestine and Syria by boat and motor-car, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey and Georgia. He makes astute observations about the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East and there is an interesting chapter about a trip to India in 1913 during which he witnessed the construction of New Delhi.  There are also short pieces on Honolulu (“the most absurd place in the world”) from 1906 and South Africa in 1902 at the end of the Boer War.

The book contains further chapters which predominantly describe political conferences in Berne, Berlin, Denmark, Belgium and in Prague, although they also contain some interesting observations about those places (“everyone who loves Edinburgh and regards its stones as precious must love Prague”). 

One of the appealing aspects of this collection is that MacDonald’s enthusiasm for travel leaps off the pages.

But the smell of the East is an incense in my nostrils, and its clatter of tongues is music to my ears. I have been wandering in the mud of the city which Alexander the Great founded, which Julius Caesar took by storm, which became the home of philosophy and religion, and which shone over the world as its Pharos shone over the Mediterranean.

For me at least, Ramsay MacDonald’s name conjures an image of an embattled politician with serious socialist views and a political zeal.  In these essays, though, another side to the politician is visible, that of a man who revelled in being outdoors and who enjoyed reawakening a child’s enthusiasm through travel and who could give into the romance of starting out on a journey or thrill at the sight of simply seeing the names of places he wanted to visit painted on the side of a train:

When you go to Clapham, there is no romance about Victoria Station. It is sordid and utilitarian. But when your journey is to be beyond the rim of the world, romance meets you, even at Victoria, and this noisy dull place becomes like the miserable doorkeeper of a palace.

How I welcome the hospitable appearance of that refuge, the Orient Express, with the places I sought painted in red letters on a white iron sheet on its sides  – ‘Milan,’ ‘Venice,’ ‘Trieste,’ andway beyond, ‘Constantinople.’ 

Wanderings and Excursions is not currently in print which is a pity, if unsurprising.  I could not find a copy of the text online even though it appears to be out of copyright but second-hand copies are available via Abebooks, here.

Book: Edith Wharton in Morocco

In Morocco
by Edith Wharton

Overripeness is…the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past.  To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams; and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.

Edith Wharton, novelist and friend of author Henry James, came late to her writing career but was a traveller from an early age, prompting her to comment in later life “perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.”

Wharton was born into a wealthy family in 1862.  Following the American Civil War, her family moved to Europe, travelling between France, Spain and Italy before returning to New York when the Franco-Prussian war broke out.  

Wharton later married a wealthy Boston banker in 1885 with whom she travelled around Europe for several months each year.  At the end of the 19th century, the Whartons’ travels focused on Italy but switched to France in the early part of the 20th century.  Their travels included a four-month yacht cruise on the Aegean in 1888 which Wharton wrote about in The Cruise of the Vanadis.  

It was only in her 40s that Wharton turned seriously to writing after the publication of her first successful novel The House of Mirth.  In addition to fiction, Wharton wrote seven travel books. After her separation and divorce, Wharton moved to France where lived until her death in 1937.   

edith-wharton

In her introduction to Edith Wharton Abroad, a collection of Wharton’s travel writing, Sarah Bird Wright notes that Wharton’s travel writing is shaped not only by her extensive reading and learning but also a “dislike of architectural restoration” and a “preference for “parentheses” of travel instead of the “catalogued riches of guidebooks””. She also observes that, like William Dean Howells, Wharton was a traveller before she was a writer.    

Relatively late in her travelling career, in 1917 and while Europe was still engulfed by the First World War, Edith Wharton toured Morocco by car at a pivotal moment in that country’s history:

the brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.

Overshadowing In Morocco is the sense that Wharton is glimpsing a country that is changing and disappearing.  Wharton sees that a combination of French improvement to Morocco’s railways and roads together with the resumption of normal Mediterranean passenger traffic after the war will open Morocco up to “the great torrent of ‘tourism'” and all the “banalities and promiscuities of modern travel”.

whartons-journey-in-morocco

Starting her journey in Tangier, Wharton is keen to get away from the familiar “dog-eared world of travel” she finds there and instead immerse herself in the souks and harems of old Morocco.

Wharton visits Rabat and Sale, Volubilis (the only sizeable Roman ruins so far discovered in Morocco) and also Meknes, where she recalls the reign of Sultan Moulay-Ismael whose architectural achievements are overshadowed by his use of slaves in their construction among whom were Christians captured by Barbary pirates.

Wharton moves on to “many-walled Fez” where she vividly describes the descent through its souk to the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay-Idriss and the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin.  

Wharton describes the markets and souks of Fez and Marrakech and also the Djemaa el- Fna with its storytellers, snake-charmers and dancers, concluding that there “can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara.” 

Wharton also describes visits to Moulay Idriss, where she witnesses a blood rite dance, as well as the Saadian tombs in Marrakech, both places firmly on modern travellers’ itineraries but to which foreigners then had only recently been permitted access. 

Wharton portrays Morocco as a country of constant change, instability and even as a shifting concept.  She describes the flows of Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian, Merinid or Hassanian invaders as they wash across the country, each leaving their mark on Morocco’s architecture and history.  

With shifts in power Wharton notes the shifting borders or areas of control, in a region bounded by the Giralda tower in Seville to the Koutoubya tower in Marrakech and beyond the desert to interior Africa.  

Wharton also describes the abandoned and decaying buildings which, made of plaster and rubble, “do not die in beauty like the firm stones of Rome”

Everywhere behind the bristling walls and rock-clamped towers of old Morocco lurks the shadowy spirit of instability. Every new Sultan builds himself a new house and lets his predecessors’ palaces fall into decay; and as with the Sultan so with his vassals and officials. Change is the rule in this apparently unchanged civilization, where “nought may abide but Mutability.

Wharton clearly views the French and, in particular, General Lyautey’s governorship of Morocco as enlightened and perhaps, underlining a departure from the past, as permanent and stable.  In one sense then, although the French represent another wave of invaders to have crossed the desert and administer Morocco, their coming marks a change from the normal pattern and the arrival of modernity. 

No more will the invading or controlling power knock down and rebuild.  No more will Morocco’s old buildings fall into ruin.  New buildings are to be constructed outside of the old towns and Wharton praises the “incessant efforts of General Lyautey’s administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste.”  

Conscious that she is visiting a guidebook-less country, Wharton adds to her personal impressions, outlines of the country’s history and architecture.  Modestly, she claims that the chief merit of these outlines is their absence of originality, having drawn their content from other works that she lists.  She also devotes a chapter to describing her experiences of harems in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech. 

Although, in her original preface of 1919, Wharton expresses concern at the prospect of increased tourism to Morocco, in the preface to a new edition in 1927, Wharton is pleased to note that Morocco has retained “nearly all the magic and mystery of forbidden days”, despite its popularity as a destination and the improvements to its accessibility and its conveniences, concluding that: 

To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”  

Some of Wharton’s other travel books (some of which are available to download for free and legally at The Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg) are: 

 

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). 



Article: Save yourself from being a white saviour when volunteering abroad

The conversation was always about ‘help, help, help,’ but nobody ever asked if what we were doing was needed.

With A-level results out and gap years getting under way before university studies begin, this great article from Huck magazine about trying to avoid the pitfalls of volunteering is timely.

Earlier in the year, the London School of Economics announced that gap year students volunteering abroad could do more harm than good and that orphanages could lead to exploitation and child trafficking.  

Gap years and volunteering also made the press earlier this summer when Scottish actress Louise Linton ended up retracting a widely criticised memoir about her gap year experiences in Zambia.

Don’t be a white saviour.  Don’t.

Huck’s overarching message is easy to bear in mind.  Volunteers must try to understand their own motivations.  Sites like Humanitarians of Tinder and the Gap Yah Youtube video are funny because they expose possibly dual or insincere motivations but could equally illustrate another point made in the Huck article: “there’s no shame in ‘just’ being a tourist.”

Tourism is often seen negatively, as something destructive and culturally insensitive.  The point of Huck’s piece is that volunteerism, unless given some thought is also capable of being negative.   

Accepting that with only limited time to spend in a place we can only really be tourists, may be preferable to uncritically paying to take part in a scheme whose benefits may at best be unclear or at worst negative.  An honest approach may also help us see more clearly the impact our travels have on a place and on the relationships we have with the people who live there, rather than cloaking our travels in altruism.  

As an article on the BBC website in July pointed out, a dynamic where the most privileged from wealthier nations pay to take part in projects in or visit underprivileged communities can result in poverty tourism.

From volunteering on projects to visiting favelas in Rio and slums in Mumbai, it seems we will go to ever greater lengths to experience the authentic as a traveller rather than repeat clichéd experiences as tourists.  The ethics of this are not always easy.  

If so-called ‘slum tourism’ can be criticised for voyeurism and commodifying urban inequality, can the volunteer industry be seen as commodifying poverty and inequalities on a global scale along with the development and aid sectors that are meant to be alleviating it?  

Possibly, but it is also the case that done responsibly, slum tourism (as with volunteering) can have positive effects on communities and the people who visit them.  As well as bringing money directly to less advantaged communities and their businesses, visitors gain a different perspective on the destinations they travel to.  And that, as Fabian Frenzel, author of Slumming It, points out in this Forbes article and this interview in Vice “is the classical, educational aspect of tourism.” 

If all of this seems overwhelming and far more complex than you anticipated — good. That’s really the point. International volunteering should not be undertaken on a lark.  Shannon O’Donnell

Deciding whether to volunteer and choosing the right programme are not necessarily straight forward.  This isn’t to say don’t do it, or that there are not many ways that travellers can have positive effects on the communities and cultures that they visit.  It just means that having a positive impact on the world may not be as simple as it first seems.

Responsible tourism is one alternative to travelling with a white saviour complex.  This excellent article by Shannon O’Donnell points out some others.  

Another way to avoid the pitfalls of both forms of volunteerism and tourism is simply to bear in mind Huck’s more forthright and general exhortation: “Don’t be a dick.”  

Photo essay: Urbanistan, a street photography project

UrbaniStan is a street photography project that explores the urban environment of the developing world. The project aims to demonstrate that ‘urban’ in the developing world does not necessarily mean modern and to draw the attention of the general public to the slowly declining social values that are sinking under increasing pressures of modernisation. 

Excellent photo essay from Maptia and Slovenian photographer, Matjaž Krivic.

Breathtaking in its scope and with beautiful images, this gallery of 80 images of urban life around the world is a visual feast for any travel lover.  

 

The photos in this gallery are the result of Krivic’s many years’ globe-trotting in Asia, Africa and the Middle East but they are much more than simply a collection of postcard images of famous places.  

Although many of the locations are well known, Krivic captures a different angle and gives them a personality whether it is of boys playing volleyball on the streets of Thula in Yemen, Jaipur primary school pupils having a maths lesson, a boy studying at a medrassa in Mali or people at work, play or prayer around the world.  

 

Matjaž Krivic has been travelling and photographing the world for 22 years.  According to his website, he focusses on poorer parts of the world “characterised by traditions, social unrest and religious devotion…the marginal world – the voices of the neglected”.

Intimate, spontaneous and striking, this is a gallery to get lost in, to wonder not only at the places themselves but also at the people who live there and the lives they lead. Inspiring and thought provoking. 

More of Matjaž Krivic’s work can be found on his website (www.krivic.com), on Instagram (@krivicmatjaz) or on Twitter (@matjazkrivic) and if 80 photos aren’t enough and you want to see more of the Urbanistan photos, look here.  

 

 

Video: Kenya from the air (4m42s)

SOMETIMES you stumble across a place that seems like it got far more than its fair share of natural beauty. Places with spectacular wildlife, gorgeous scenery, and an almost absurdly beautiful culture. Kenya is one of those places.

Superb and enticing video from Matador Network.  Using a mixture of drone and plane footage, Matador travelled to remote parts of Kenya to produce this short film.  As well as including familiar wildlife shots, it also showcases the beauty of Kenya’s varied landscapes. 

The video is narrated by Jamie Gaymer, game warden at the Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy.  Emphasising the scale of Kenya’s unspoilt mountains, deserts, savannah and jungles and urging the viewer to visit Kenya before it changes, Jamie notes:

I haven’t scratched the surface yet and there is so much out there in these remote places that has not been explored.  

Sure to stoke any traveller’s wanderlust.

Article: A lost library in Zanzibar

It is nearly ten years since I first sat on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel in Stone Town, Zanzibar, and waited expectantly for the sun to meet the ocean.  I was talking to the manager, who asked whether I knew that the building once housed the English Club, and that its library still existed if I would like to see it.  I forgot the sunset in an instant.”

A slice of literary history from the magazine of the London Library, this article is for bibliophiles and those interested in East Africa, Zanzibar and colonial life. 

Jono Jackson, historian and author, recounts his fascination with the library of the former colonial English Club in Zanzibar and how he traced its holdings through the collections in the London Library several thousand miles away  while researching the social value and meaning of books in Stone Town.  

In the process, he reconstructs the life of this cultural cornerstone of the former British Protectorate as well as its significance to residents and visitors to Zanzibar (including Evelyn Waugh who refers to the library in his travel book Remote People). 

He recalls a time when obtaining reading material when travelling was considerably more difficult than downloading books over a wifi connection and involved more than browsing second-hand bookshops or book exchanges in hostels, even if the underlying motives had more in common.

To the isolated dweller in the more distant parts of the Empire, books often afford an indispensable link with the old country as well as an indispensable source of happiness and comfort. 

The demise of the English Club naturally followed that of the British Empire.  Remarkably, though, much of the Club library’s collection remained intact following independence and, following a renovation, is available to be viewed by guests of the Africa House Hotel as “an unintended survivor of a colonial past”.   

Jono Jackson has contributed to the Footprint Guide to Tanzania and some more of his writing on Zanzibar can be found at Mambo magazine.  I particularly liked this one in which he follows a walking tour from an old 1961 guide to Zanzibar he picked up from a secondhand bookshop.

His article on the English Club library is at page 24 of the London Library magazine, embedded below via Issuu. 

Article: Dream to reality – motorcycle odyssey from Scotland to Cape Town

Camping in the desert is one of the most incredible experiences you can have. We set up under this solitary tree with the most perfect night sky imaginable, knowing there was not a soul for miles besides the desert foxes. You have to check your boots for scorpions in the morning but other than that it’s the most peaceful experience in the world.

I have been a sucker for a motorbike adventure ever since reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance during my first trip to south-east Asia after finishing school.  What finally inspired me to get my licence though was watching Long Way Round and later reading the book that had inspired Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman, Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon.  I have yet to make a longer trip but, until I do, I’m always happy to read about someone else’s.

This article from TravelStories follows Archie Leeming and two friends as they journey from Edinburgh to Cape Town by motorbike.  The article is a breathless account of their 10 month trip but describes enough of the rides through snow, deserts and across mountains, nights spent camping, border and river crossings and encounters to convey a real sense of the excitement of the journey and the physical exertion of riding in tough conditions.  The text is accompanied by some great images.  

The climate proved to be as turbulent as our bowels for the first few months in Africa.

A lads’ own adventure, this trip is reminiscent of Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman’s second venture, Long Way Down.  The difference is that Leeming and his friends had little money, no particular mechanical skill or specialist kit and one of the group even lacked riding experience.  

They made up for this with a mix of naivety, optimism and enthusiasm, almost unexpectedly finding themselves on their bikes in Africa, demonstrating that John Steinbeck may have been onto something when he observed, “we do not take a trip, a trip takes us”.

For some reason the story ends unexpectedly in Namibia but, if this article isn’t inspiration enough, be sure to have a look at the images of Archie Leeming’s other motorcycle adventures on Instagram or at www.archieleeming.com.  

Article: Shifting perceptions – In search of the real Sahara

We laugh a lot in the Sahara.
The environment may be hard and brutal… but the behaviour is sweet.

Sometimes a trip can work out differently to the one you planned and dreamed about.  

That is what photographer Arnaud Contreras found.  Contreras had been travelling through Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger and Western Sahara with a plan to study their cultures.  However, when he arrived in Timbuktu, what he found inspired him to change his approach.

 

In this article from the great Huck magazine, Contreras tells the story of how the sight of teenagers in Timbuktu swapping music videos made him rethink his plans.  Abandoning the traditional narrative for reporting on Africa, Contreras instead photographed communities in the Sahara that were embracing modernity and mobile technology.

A fascinating glimpse of the side of life in the Sahara that is normally sidelined by the mainstream media which prefers stories about terrorism and poverty, Contreras focuses on the story of a desert that embraces rock music and is forging an identity under the desert sun that defies the normal stereotypes.  Travel and reporting as it should be, Contreras’ photos are a tonic. 

More of Contreras’ photos from his book Sahara Rocks! along with his other work can be seen on his website at www.arnaudcontreras.com

On the theme of shifting perceptions, this photo essay complements another story from Huck about the project Everyday Africa, a network of photographers who contribute to the an Instagram feed to represent a more balanced view of Africa away from the traditional images of war and famine: 

 

Book: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupéry

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)

We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were infinitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.

In his NYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry ($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).  

Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight.  In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”  He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen. 

St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying.  He  expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”).  Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:

The aeroplane is a means, not an end.  It is not for the plane that we risk our lives.  Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs.  But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.

The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living.  In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.

He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight.  Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazine observes that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.”  The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed.  Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous.  The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.   

Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger.  There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.

Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.   

St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays.  Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).

Some men stay closeted in their title shops.  Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life.  Its message is not that to live we must fly.  It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning: 

When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.

It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:  

What saves a man is to take a step. And another step.
It’s that same first step repeated.

For further reading, see this article by Daniel Buck in the magazine of the South American Explorers Club: 

Article: How not to write about India…or Africa

I didn’t want to succumb to the tourist traps. I wasn’t interested in India-lite. I wanted the real thing…And Real India didn’t disappoint. It was clear that despite their plight, people are happy.

Civilian recently published an article, Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!, in which “Chubby Mummy” describes a trip that she took to India along with Chubby Hubby and little Barnaby.  

Chubby Mummy’s account was cliche-ridden to the point of being offensive: “As I gazed at the scene unfolding around me, I saw a child in rags tap at the window of a brand new imported Mercedes: a slumdog and a millionaire.” Unsurprisingly, the article provoked a fair amount of fury and disbelief.  

It turns out that those readers who couldn’t believe it and assumed it was a parody were right.  Or at least half right.

The article was written by Monisha Rajesh, journalist and author of Around India in 80 Trains.  Tired of seeing poor quality writing about India, Rajesh put together the Civilian article using extracts from other published pieces.  The effect was so toe-curling it was actually quite amusing. 

 In a follow-up piece published a few days later, Rajesh came clean and expressed amazement that so few people had spotted her article was a fake and seemed to accept that it was “just another rubbish piece about India.”  

Perhaps that is not so surprising given the use of published articles about India.  Chubby Mummy’s reliance on “colour and chaos” was only distinguishable from the mass of poor journalism about India by degree rather than substance.  As if to make the point, in the days following publication of the fake article, Rajesh tweeted links to two or three more articles which all used the same cliches.    

My colleague and I play a game called Travel-writer Bingo while we edit, deleting the “white-sand beaches”, “crystal-clear waters”, and all the other “hidden gems” “tucked away down alleyways”, that “don’t disappoint”. But when it comes to writing on India, these articles take on a whole new dimension. 

A similar observation about travel writing cliches has been made before, only about Africa rather than India.

In 2006, Granta published an article by Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina, called How to Write about Africa.  Rather than a parody piece of travel writing it is an essay offering advice on how to write about Africa in stereotyped form.  

The African cliches Wainaina deploys as satire in that essay are as recognisable as those Rajesh highlights about India.  It is easy to be superior and to scoff but depressing to notice how frequently travel writers resort to them. 

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

Ironically, although Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay was published in Granta, it was in fact writing in Granta that prompted it.   The article began life as an email rant (“a piss-job, a venting of steam; it was never supposed to see the light of day”) responding to stereotyped writing about Africa in Granta which was “populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.”   As Wainaina explains in How to Write About Africa II, Granta’s new editor Ian Jack responded to his email and an edited version was used in a subsequent Granta Africa issue.   

The essay grew a life off its own and became Granta’s most forwarded article.  There is even a Youtube video of actor, Djimon Hounsou (who appeared in Amistad, Gladiator and Blood Diamond) narrating Wainaina’s article:

As the New Yorker has observed, “to write about Africa without consulting this handy guide is to do yourself a disservice, and to potentially set yourself up for a good mocking.”  To that, one can now add that anyone writing about India ought similarly to consult Monisha Rajesh’s Colour and chaos in Mumbai | The good girl’s guide to India-aargh!.

Book: Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad, or the new Pilgrims’ Progress
by Mark Twain

Published in 1869

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.

Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s first travel book and also his best-selling book during his life time.   A travel writing classic, it features in Conde Nast Traveler’s 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time and World Hum’s list of 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books.   

The details of the trip are well known.  In 1967, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Twain joined a group of 60 or so other passengers on a tour of the Mediterranean (“a pleasure excursion” and “picnic on a grand scale”).  The voyage was to be undertaken on the paddle steamship, the Quaker City.  Decommissioned following service in the Civil War, the Quaker City had been refitted “with every necessary comfort” including a library, musical instruments and even a printing press so that the passengers could print their own newsletter.  

Innocents ABroad USS_Quaker_City

The trip lasted about 5 months.  It took a fortnight to reach Gibraltar from the US and Twain reports (not without apprehension at the anticipated boredom) that it would take several weeks to steam back to the US from the Eastern Mediterranean; a long time to spend on a boat about 75 metres in length.   

In the remaining four or less months, the ‘Pilgrims’ packed in an impressive amount, taking in (among other places) Tangiers, Paris, Milan, the Italian lakes, Florence and Rome, the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol (for some Crimea battlefield tourism), Yalta and Odessa before heading to the Holy Land which was the ultimate goal of the trip.  

The only thing more impressive than the number of places visited by the Pilgrims was Twain’s output.  Twain’s $1,250 fare for the voyage was paid by The Daily Alto California.  In return, he sent the San Francisco paper over 50 letters which it published and which later formed the basis of the 600 plus page book Twain wrote after his return in 1868.    

Twain Innocents Abroad

From the outset Twain makes it clear that he is not writing an earnest and reverent travel book, calling it a “record of a pleasure trip” and he proceeds to rail against travellers, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places and also travel writers.

Twain is unsparing of Parisian barbers, tour guides, European use of soap, Turkish baths and, of course, ‘our friends the Bermudians’ as well as a great many other things he encounters.  He professes to be sated by walls of paintings and is sceptical of tourists who express wonder at the Last Supper and instead claims to be more interested in turnpikes, depots and boulevards of uniform houses because he understands them and is not competent to act as a guide to Europe’s art treasures for his readers (“I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”)  Twain’s humour is, for the most part, gentle and aimed at deserving targets.  Only occasionally is he biting or more cruel but his wit is invariably delivered with perfect timing.  

The innocents abroad: or, The new Pilgrim's progress. By Mark Twain. Uniform title: Prospectus Publication info: Hartford, Conn. : American Publishing Co., [1869] Special Collections Copies Material Location PS1312 .A1 1869ca RAREBOOK Special Collections SC-BARR-STThrough his observations and humour, Twain encourages the traveller to look for things which interest him rather than simply those things noted in guidebooks or travel books.  

Twain mocks different traveller types, from the Oracle who bores his fellow travellers with knowledge gleaned from guidebooks and passed off as learned, the Old Travellers who brag and “prate and drivel and lie”, the consummate ass who dresses in local fashion and feigns a foreign accent and the Vandal who inscribes his name on monuments.  He makes fun of their insularity, ignorance and innocence.  While his own innocence may be feigned, Twain also turns his pen on himself, confessing to be variously, a “consummate” and “egregious” ass.

He reserves special mention for travel writers who “heated their fancies and biased their judgment”, turning out “pleasant falsities” either to be popular or to deceive or who slavishly emulate other authors.  Twain is critical of his fellow Pilgrims who ‘smouch’ their opinions about places from those books so that they “will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as it appeared to them”, but as it appeared to writers of travel books.

Innocents Abroad is therefore an exercise in suggesting to the reader “how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.”   

Although referred as a travel writing classic, in its railing against traveller types, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places as well as travel writers, Innocents Abroad could in some ways be considered an anti-travel writing classic. With his repeated comparison of foreign sights with the US, Twain also gives the impression of someone who would almost have rather remained at home. Nevertheless, it is clear he is ‘pricking bubbles’ and ‘exploding humbugs’ of travel, not least those who slavishly adhere to guidebooks and express wonder and delight on cue. 

In common with other serialised Nineteenth Century books, at times Innocents Abroad seems a little lengthy, but is almost always enjoyable.  Twain meanders at some points of the Holy Land excursion when recalling his bible history, but even those chapters contain some excellent passages and anecdotes.

Some contemporary reviews of Innocents Abroad are available on line here and include WD Howells’ review for the Atlantic, and also a spoof review written by Twain himself.  

Innocents Abroad is available download for free in a variety of electronic formats at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive.

If you like the sound of this, you might also be interested in Labels by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here