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.

      

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.

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.  

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: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

Published by W&N (2009) (originally published in 1989 by BBC)

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I’m glad to say I suffer from it. The ambition of every dromomaniac is a circumnavigation of the planet.

It is more then 25 years since Monty Python member, Michael Palin, left on his round the world journey for the BBC in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s fictional traveller, Phileas Fogg.    

That journey around the world was, in his own words, the one that “started the ball rolling” and, in those 25 years, Palin has embarked on a second career as TV travel presenter and has completed a further seven journeys, from Pole to Pole, across the Sahara, to the Himlayas, around Eastern Europe, in pursuit of Hemingway and lastly to Brazil.   All have been filmed and broadcast by the BBC and have accompanying books (as well as audiobooks, narrated by Palin).  So successful was Palin’s second career as traveller and adventurer that it culminated in him being president of the Royal Geographical Society between 2009 and 2012.

Palin was not the BBC’s first choice as presenter for the journey; three others turned the role down before it was offered to him.  One of those was Alan Whicker, presenter of Whicker’s World, a TV magazine program reporting from the round the world that ran on British television for 30 years.  In an interview with Palin and his co-producer, Roger Mills, to mark the anniversary of Palin’s 80 day journey and to promote the third volume of Palin’s diaries which cover most of his travelling period, Mills recalls how the production team did their best to put Whicker off accepting the job.  Apparently Whicker later called the programme “a seven-hour ego trip” (read more here).  The series was a success though and the BBC screened seven instead of the six originally planned episodes and the final programme was viewed by 12 million.     

The 80 day journey tried to stick as closely to Fogg’s route as possible.   Travel by plane was not allowed.   In an age where travel is widespread and the world is only a click away courtesy of Youtube or Vimeo, it would be easy to question the value of such a journey.  Palin himself admits his journey never allowed time to  “dig very deep” and in his introduction acknowledged that “those expecting profound international insights will be disappointed.” In an interview for A&E in the US promoting the TV series and aired after the first episode, Palin was asked what he now felt about air travel and replied:

its highly functional and a bit aseptic it’s rather like being in a nice piece of cling wrap; you soar over the world and the aircraft cabin you’re in is exactly like the lounge you get out into like the hotel you go to, there are no smells sounds you don’t really touch and feel the world much, I mean, if I have to go from A to B very quickly yes fine suits me, but the experience of going across the Atlantic by ship was so utterly different to going across the Atlantic by plane and it gives you time, time to think about the culture you’ve just left and time to sort of prepare yourself for he next one.

The point was simply the opportunity to make a journey like this overland and experience the scale of the world and the relation of countries and cultures to one another.  To see, hear, smell and touch it:

Travel when the hands get dirty, when contact is made, brought home to me how much we all see of the world on television and in the newspapers, and how little we know of it. Journeys like this can only be good for us. (from the Afterword)

This is where Around the World in 80 Days is best.  Not in the set pieces or the traditional sights but in the people Palin meets and speaks to: the rubbish collectors in Venice, the crew on the many ships he travels on (and particularly the dhow) or the street barber in Bombay.   The contrasts of elation and frustration and of hurrying to meet connections and waiting; those “still pools at the side of the stream, where for a while, nothing at all moves.”  And the fact that despite the BBC’s best efforts, things don’t always go to plan and although making his journey at the end of the 20th century, Palin struggles to ‘keep pace’ with Fogg’s fictional 19th century journey.  

These things, and Palin’s natural approach, make this journey both personal and satisfying as we experience the generosity he encounters as he circles the globe and the sadness he feels at constantly leaving places people and people he has known only for a short time. Ironically though, given the scale of his journey, nowhere is the vastness of the world and our place in it made as clear as up Palin’s anticlimatic and frustrating return to an indifferent London. 

Photographs, videos, interactive maps of Palin’s route and the entire text of the book are online at www.palinstravels.co.uk together with materials relating to his other journeys. 

See Kathy Lette interview Michael Palin for the BBC’s Behind the Headlines in 1990 (the sound and video are a little out of synch but it is a quite funny contemporary interview):

For more on Palin’s role as President of the Royal Geographical Society, see this article from 2009 in the Independent newspaper.

Download and read Jules Verne’s original story for free from Amazon for Kindle or in other ebook formats for free from Gutenburg here.

Book: Kapuscinksi’s Travels with Herodotus

Kapuscinski - Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Penguin Books

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century.   Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. 

Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book.  In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale.  Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.    

So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories.  For KapuscinskiHerodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.

Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).

This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”.  Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls.  Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”

Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:

With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew.  These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one.  I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs.  What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”

In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.

This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.  

Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism  to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”  

In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story is not getting expressed: It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”

To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and  Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”.   The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.  

Kapuscinski has been criticised for his lack of accuracy.  For some, his writing was “tinged with magical realism”, while for others he was just making things up.  

This was not just carelessness.  Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work: 

Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events.  All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid.  If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need:  the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”

Although writing where “descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.  

Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact.  It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).   

Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here.  Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.

For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:

Essay: Rolf & the Report of Wenamun

Who was the first great traveler of literary history?…

…Rolf Potts asks in this article about one of the oldest recorded travelogues.

The incomplete travelogue, written on papyrus, was found in Egypt in 1890.  It recounts the misadventures of a priest’s travels form Thebes to Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) almost 3,000 years ago.  

The surviving travelogue is brief and Rolf Potts tells the story with the help of his 14 year old nephew.  

The result is an amusing comic strip which has more in common with Asterix the Gaul than the heroics of Odysseus, while the abrupt ending of Wenamun’s misadventures is used to suggest something a bit more Carry on Cleo than a serious diplomatic mission.   

The comic strip is a more engaging way of discovering Wenamun’s travels compared to the available, brief translations.  This is fitting because, as Rolf points out, Wenamun’s travels are not of mythic proportions and are closer to most people’s experience of travel which, instead of as adventurers and heroes, is more often as “novices, improvisers, and sometimes, fools”.

Book: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1929) by Evelyn Waugh

Published by Penguin Following a brief visit to Athens in 1927, Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: “The truth is that I do not really like being abroad much. I want to see as much as I can this holiday and shut myself for the rest of my life in the British Isles” (Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  He may not have enjoyed “abroad” but Waugh did not remain shut in the British Isles for long. Despite insisting that he had no aspiration to be a great traveler and was no adventurer, twenty years later Waugh was able to look back and state: “From 1928 until 1937 I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I travelled continuously, in England and abroad… It is fortunate that he did as, from his travels in this period, Waugh produced several travel books of which Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, was the first.   Labels recounts Waugh’s journey around the Mediterranean by Norwegian cruise ship in 1929, the same year same year in which Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front were published. In a 1962 interview with the Paris Review, Waugh was dismissive both of the journey (“I went through a form of marriage and traveled about Europe for some months with this consort“) and of the book (“I wrote accounts of these travels which were bundled together into books and paid for the journeys, but left nothing over.“). The NY Times shared Waugh’s lack of enthusiasm for the book. When Labels was republished in 1949 (in abridged form as part of a collection, When the Going was Good), the NYT simply noted that Labels did not have “a great deal of interest“. This might seem surprising for a journey which included Paris, Monte Carlo, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Cairo, Constantinople, Crete, Athens, Corfu, Venice, Haifa, Nazareth, Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon as well as modern day Croatia and Montenegro. However, the reader looking for much insight into the places themselves will be disappointed. In that regard, the NYT appears right although dismisses Labels too lightly. In his unfinished essay about Waugh, Orwell observed that Waugh’s books appeared to consist of “high-spirited foolery“, and were “tinged by the kind of innocent snobbishness that causes people to wait twenty-four hours on the pavement to get a good view of a royal wedding.” Both are on display in Labels. Waugh explains early on that his book is so titled because all of the places he visits have already been “fully labelled“. He admits that “there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard” and “no towns so constantly and completely and completely overrun with tourists” as those he visits. Why then engage in writing a travel book about such places? Nicholas Shakespeare provides the motive in his introduction to Waugh Abroad, (Waugh’s collected travel writing); the cruise was part expenses paid trip and part honeymoon. Waugh may also have been trying his hand at travel writing because it was a popular and growing literary genre. Indeed, Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator notes that Waugh could have joined the circle of travel writers in the 1930s apart from one “insuperable reason”: He travelled to ‘get away’, always a compulsion. But none of his travel books reveals any profound interest in the places he saw, the people who inhabited them or the art they produced. Instead, he looked for bizarre characters or events which could provide material for his anarchic humour in fiction. Waugh’s lack of interest in the places he visits is evident in Labels.  He reserves his enthusiasm for lesser visited destinations – the Croatian coast, Lisbon, Barcelona – and also Malta which he praises as being as not having been allowed to become a “show place”. Generally, Waugh is more interested in lampooning famous places as travel destinations along with those who visit them. He expresses disappointment with many of the sights he visits.   Bored with the “cult of mere antiquity“, the Sphinx is described as “an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal” while Etna at sunset is dismissed with the sentence: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting”.  While visiting the Serapeum at Sakkara, he wonders whether the joke is on “us”, longing to declaim – “fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all of these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Waugh also takes a swipe at earnest travellers writing more serious travelogues (Hilaire Belloc, in particular, comes under fire by name and by inference, as “Off the Beaten Track in Surrey” could easily be a reference to Belloc’s Four Men a Farrago).  As a result Waugh recounts not only his journey but also offers insights in to travel, tourism along with different traveller types and motives and is funny doing it. He confesses to preferring the “fleshy comforts” of the cruise ship to the “dirt and indignity” of rail travel and the “cold and noise” of air travel (not to mention air-sickness, which produces a funny anecdote).  When re-joining the cruise ship after a stay on Malta one senses Waugh’s relief at being able to unpack and renew his “acquaintance with the deck bar steward” and of pushing his trunk under the bed “in the knowledge that it would not be wanted again until [he] reached England“. Waugh recognises that travel by cruise ship would not be for the “real travel snob” for whom “recurrent clashes with authority at customs houses and police stations are half the fun of travelling” but prefers it to the “incessant packing and unpacking which is entailed in independent travelling“. Nevertheless, Waugh sets himself apart from his fellow passengers and enjoys observing them exchanging “competitive anecdotes” about their shore adventures and bargaining skills and foresees the pretensions with which trinkets haggled over in bazaars might be presented at home (as a “reminder of those magical evenings under a wider sky“). He delights in the foibles of his fellow passengers who, when encountered in less reputable places ashore, “wink knowingly at you the next morning” and “borrow money at Casinos“. Waugh also captures the frustration of having too little time to see things meaningfully.  In Naples he is “impelled by a restless sense of obligation” to see much more than he intelligibly could and admits disappointment with Mallorca although recognises that may be a result of “excess of variety” brought on by moving so rapidly from place to place so that one “misses the subtler and more fugitive qualities which reveal themselves shyly to more leisured travellers“. At the start of Labels, Waugh proclaims that “[e]very Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist“.  He identifies with “real travel snobs” who shudder at the thought of pleasure cruises and guided tours yet prefers the “outstanding comfort and leisure” of a cruise ship.   On boarding the Stella Polaris, Waugh admits that it is time to give up the pretence and accept that he is a tourist and not a traveller.  To (or for) the reader’s amusement, he struggles to do so though and in Naples, insists on sightseeing alone, ends up wasting money and seeing almost nothing, finally admitting that he might have fared better to join a guided tour.  Perhaps Waugh merely saw, as Fussell later recognised, that “[t]he anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now“. Waugh then is a curious type traveller but is nonetheless interesting and funnier for it.  At times, when reading Labels, one wonders why Waugh left the British Isles at all, but we should be glad that he did. Further reading: Times Literary Supplement review of Labels 2011 edition   For an overview of Waugh’s Travel Writing see this article or , for a more detailed analysis, Nicholas Shakespeare’s introduction in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing or the chapter, Evelyn Waugh’s Moral Entertainments in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.