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.

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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.

Video: Overlanding the Silk Road (05m08s)

There was thick pristine snow covering the mountains as far as you can see, which was a stark contrast with the endless sanddunes we have seen on other parts of the Silk Road, which gives you a better understanding of the wide range of difficulties and obstacles that merchants in past centuries had to overcome on these trade routes, not to mention the bandits and armies shifting control of the areas.

120 days and 18,000 km along the Silk Road with a Dragoman overland expedition. 

Nicely edited, Nicolas Bori’s video contains some striking images and colours showing the diversity of the peoples and landscapes in the countries along the route.

Nicolas recalls some of the highlights from his trip, including epic scenery, mountains, picnicking with locals and moonlit, starry nights on Traveldudes’ website, here.

Book: New Great Game, Kleveman

The New Great Game by Lutz Kleveman
Atlantic Books, 2004

Kleveman is a German born journalist who from 1997 to 2007 reported on conflicts in places such as the Balkans, West AfricaCentral Asia and the Caucasus.

Kleveman’s book updates and explores the ‘Great Game’, played by Russia and the British in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in pursuit of their respective imperial goals in the 19th century and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.

Russia still features as a main player in the New Great Game and is joined by the US, Iran, China and the countries of Central Asia and the Causcasus.  The prizes in this game are the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.

The New Great Game is a compelling piece of reportage.  Having driven round the Balkans in 1999-2000 in an old Citroen CX25 reporting on the ongoing ethnic conflict and the revolution against the Milosevic regime and also reporting on blood diamonds, child soldiers and oil in West Africa, Kleveman’s attention turned to the Caucasus.  So, in August 2001, Kleveman set out from Berlin on a road trp to Baku in Azerbaijan (again in a Citroen CX25).

Prevented from entering Chechnya by Russian security services, Kleveman was “after five days of interrogation (and heavy vodka-drinking) […] expelled from Russia on the fateful day of September 11, 2011.”  He eventually managed to reach Baku by train where he became increasingly interested in Caucasus oil politics.

Shortly afterwards, after a visit to Uzbekistan during the US led Afghan war, Kleveman became “hooked” on Central Asia.

According to his website, he then spent most of 2002 “zigzagging the region and meeting with the principal actors of the New Great Game about oil and pipelines: Kazakh oil barons, US generals, Russian diplomats, Afghan warlords.”  His travels and research took him through Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, Iran and arose the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, the deserts and steppe of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before heading to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and Krygystan and finally to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the New Great Game, Kleveman argues (for summaries see here…and here) that the Caucasus and Central Asia are the focus of a struggle for the gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea.  As known reserves of fossil fuels elsewhere in the world dwindle while demand for them soars, the prospect of new reserves outside of OPEC’s influence area a truly valuable prize.  The break up of the Soviet Union, coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian region has therefore given the US an unprecedented opportunity to court the former Soviet republics to attempt to secure access to these reserves and so lessen its dependence on OPEC oil supplies.

As the Caspian is landlocked, transporting the oil and gas to the sea so that it can be shipped to markets around the world is a major challenge.  This requires the construction of thousand mile pipelines to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean if a route through Russia is to be avoided.  As any pipeline must therefore go though either Iran or former Soviet republics (regarded by Russia as still being within its sphere of influence), Kleveman reports that the various countries of the region are jostling to accommodate the pipelines and to reap the rewards of the transit fees and to guarantee their independence from Russia.  Add to this mix the oil thirsty countries vying to secure access to the reserves and it becomes apparent that the competition in this game is fierce and the stakes high as the players make their moves and countermoves.

Kleveman’s book sweeps across the region providing a masterly overview of the ‘New Great Game’ and its complexities.  Kleveman puts himself at considerable risk to obtain his interviews and is often than not rewarded for those risks.  The characters he meets are larger than life with extraordinary stories to tell that bring to life the region, its history and its turbulent present.  More reportage rather than a ‘classic’ travel narrative, it is nonetheless Kleveman’s travel throughout the region and the on the spot interviews which the give the book its detail and immediacy and prevent it from being simply a book about oil and gas geopolitics (examples of photos taken on his travels are on his website).

Now several years old, it would be interesting to know what the current state of play in the New Great Game is.  However, although the pieces may have moved, The New Great Game is still a fascinating portrait of a region and a snapshot of how the board looked at the time the book was written.