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.

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). 



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.  

 

 

Article: Travels in the Land of Slowly Slowly

The vast, braided and silverish waterway of Brahmaputra, Assam’s heart and artery, is an antecedent river, older than the Himalayas themselves.

Assam: An Unchanged Land is a beautifully written piece by Horatio Clare for Conde Nast Traveller.

Located in a distant corner of India, east of Bangladesh and south of the eastern Himalayas, and separated from the rest of the country by a range of hills, Horatio Clare reports on the sleepy yet majestic land lying in the Brahmaputra valley.   

In this richly written piece, Horatio Clare looks beyond the tea plantations and finds abundant wildlife on the Brahmaputra floodplain, in Assam’s swamps and savannah and in Kaziranga National Park, home to rhino, elephants and tigers.

Clare describes a culture and people which link the Indian subcontinent with Southeast Asia, and finds that the unhurried pace of life, predominantly agrarian lifestyle, and relatively few foreign visitors give Assam a rockpool-like character reminiscent of an older India.  

Horatio Clare is a two-time nominee for the Dolman Best Travel Book Award.  He was shortlisted for A Single Swallow in 2010 and won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year in 2015 with Down to the Sea in Ships.

Horatio Clare spoke at the Hay Festival in May 2015 on the subject “Why I Write”, explaining that:

Setting the world to words as if to music, is the ambition of the writer…I write because I have no wish to live in a world where the sky and the birds and the slants of light and the moods of a day and the tones of the night are of no consequence… If I have any gift, it is to set the people I write about in the actual world and to hymn that world, this precious place, our miraculous blue green bulb.

Clare’s Hay talk is available on the BBC’s website (and below):


High-quality photographs from Alistair Taylor-Young accompany Clare’s article.  More of his images from Assam (and other travels) can be seen on his website www.at-y.com.

Video: Sights and sounds of Rajasthan (01m47s)

Great, short video from Koatlas of a trip through Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra and Amritsar.  

From looking at a guidebook and imagining a place to being plunged into the sights and sounds of its street life, this travel video nicely captures the experience of travel in Rajasthan, India and what is more, manages it without using time lapse.

Koatlas is a social network aimed at travellers to explore routes taken by other travellers as well as to plan and share their own routes.  

The website is not up and running yet but hopefully, it won’t be too long.  In the meantime, follow Koatlas on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Book: Sunil Khilnani travels India in search of 50 lives

Incarnations
by Sunil Khilnani

Allen Lane (2016)

India’s past is an arena of ferocious contest, its dead heroes continually springing back to life and despatched to the frontlines of equally ferocious contemporary cultural and political battles.

Incarnations is fascinating project.  I am still working my way through the podcasts but attended an recent talk at Stanfords travel bookshop in London recently at which Sunil Khilnani introduced his book.

Sunil Khilnani is Professor and Director of the India Institute at King’s College London.  As noted by the Independent, the format for this project closely follows that showcased by the British Museum in the series in which is explored the history of the world through 100 objects.  In Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani explores India’s culture and history through 50 lives. 

In his review for the Guardian, William Dalrymple quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “There is properly no history, only biography.”   Professor Khilnani makes this his starting point, observing that Indian history is generally ‘unpeopled’ with its focus usually being on dynasties and epochs.  With Incarnations, Khilnani aims to redress that.  Starting the series with the Buddha, Khilnani takes us on a journey through the lives of scholars, philosophers, warriors, politicians, activists, painters, writers, filmmakers and industrialists from the earliest Indian records to the present day.  

The list includes some famous names and others which are more obscure.  For those less familiar with Indian history, some of the chapter titles are a little cryptic, but they are invariably engaging and enlightening.  There are surprising or obvious omissions, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, although Incarnations does not claim to be a pantheon.   

What makes Incarnations so engaging is that the each of the short chapters is not a dry historical biography.  True to its title, Incarnations explores how traces of historical figures continue to resurface in contemporary India.  To accomplish this, Khilnani travelled throughout India to the birthplaces of the 50 individuals and conducted interviews to examine their relevance today.  Listening to the podcasts is an ideal way to appreciate these. 

Reviews of Incarnations are available online in the Financial TimesThe Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent.  A second review in the Guardian from author Siddhartha Deb stands apart from the others as being more cautious, noting that Incarnations offers “a pleasant encounter with the idea that is India”, that distracts from the current political reality. 

All episodes are available either to listen to on or download free from the BBC’s website, here.  Ideal for dipping in and out of (each chapter is about 15 minutes to listen to or about 10-15 pages in the book),  Incarnations is a fascinating introduction to Indian culture and history.  Listen to the first episode here:

Article & Video: Riding India’s Longest Train Journey

The largest employer in India with 1.4 million employees, Indian Railways is one of the largest railways in the world with over 115,000km or track over a route of 65,808km and 7,112 stations, carrying a staggering 23 million passengers a day, with freight and passenger revenues of US$24 billion. Rolling stock includes 10,499 locomotives and 66,392 passenger coaches. The infrastructure is gargantuan, and at times beautiful.

Great time lapse and stunning photographs of the longest rail journey in India from photographer, film-maker and tabla player, Ed Hanley.  

There is something particularly alluring about travelling by train compared with other forms of transport.  For me its the combination of chatting with other passengers, and having time to read and stare out of the window.  A fellow traveller once told me that the ideal train journey lasted for three hours because it allowed enough time to indulge in all three.   

The Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express travels from a city on the Brahmaputra river in Assam in north east India to the southern tip of India in Tamil Nadu.  The journey lasts three days and four nights and covers 4,273km, so that is definitely a trip with plenty of time to stare out of the window as well as read.  As to the chatting, my experience is that passengers on Indian trains are particularly social, so the shy needn’t worry about how to strike up a conversation with strangers.  

In his time lapse and accompanying photo essay, Ed Hanley perfectly captures the experience of riding trains in India and I especially like the way he takes the opportunity to treat the train not just as a mode of transport but something to be explored and enjoyed in its own right.  A great initiation. 

For further reading about travelling India by train, see Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 Trains:

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: Emily Hahn, Maharajahs & Tigers

Tiger House Party: Last days of the Maharajahs
by Emily Hahn

Doubleday & Co (1959)

A headline in a British newspaper I was skimming through read “Indian Princes Threatened with Extinction.”  It made me wonder.

This short but interesting book collects together four feature articles which were originally published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1958.

Emily Hahn reports on how India’s 600 or so dethroned princes were faring in the period not long after partition and India and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947.  

Never fully part of the British Empire, the princely states were semi-independent.  As arrangements for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (East and West) proceeded, creative negotiation was needed in some cases to persuade the princes to join India rather than Pakistan.   Dethroned, the princes were given no formal role in the new constitution and were transformed from rulers of states with powers of taxation to citizens almost overnight.

ehahn

Nevertheless, although divested of all formal power, the former princes were merely down but not out and remained as a social class.

While the princes were getting used to their new order, Hahn was invited by the Rajah of Bundi to a house party at Phoolsagar Palace to celebrate his 37th birthday.  Hahn considers the history of the royal family of Bundi and their descent from the sun and, as well as attending the Rajah’s birthday celebrations and of course describing the party, she joins a tiger hunt, goes flying, takes part in the festival of Holi, visits the old royal palace and also meets the Rajah‘s daughter Princess Kitten.  

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 17.12.19

Hahn is not Bundi’s only literary claim to fame.  Rudyard Kipling visited Bundi and is supposed to have written (or at least have been inspired to write) his novel Kim here.  He also wrote the poem, The Last Suttee about the death of the king of Boondi, whose wives mourn his passing and prepare to throw themselves on to the funeral pyre in defiance of the English ban of the traditional practice of suttee.

In 1887/8, Kipling also toured Rajahstan (known as Rajputana at the time) for the Pioneer in Allahabad and wrote a series of letters for them.  The letters which were collected and published as Letters of Marque (available online here, and here) contain his famous description of old Bundi palace:  

To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. 

By the time Emily Hahn visited Bund in the 1950s, the royal family had all but abandoned the old palace and moved in to Phoolsagar which, built in the 1940s, had more modern comforts.  Hahn is an entertaining and witty guide to life inside the Rajah’s household, more so because of the wry perspective she gives on the women in the Rajah’s life and the ‘proper’ place of a woman during a tiger hunt…    

As well as being available on Amazon, Last Days of the Maharajahs is also available in the New Yorker’s archive or free online at the Internet Archive:

Emily Hahn had a long and prolific career as a journalist and author.  She wrote over 200 articles for the New Yorker over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those), and made her final contribution at the age of 96.  In addition, Hahn travelled widely and wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects including her extensive travels.  

Read more about Emily Hahn’s travels here on Travel Without Moving, more about her life in the New York Times obituary, here, or more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Video: Holi festival of colours (1m47s)

Hindus throughout the world observe Holi, an annual celebration of the victory of good over evil; of colors, spring, and love— (from Jungles in Paris)

This video is a few years old now but is still captivating:  

See more photos of Holi celebrations and read more about the Hindu festival in this article on the excellent Jungles in Paris, an online travel magazine with a focus on culture, craft, geography, and wildlife and specialising in photo and video.

Essay: Universities’ overland challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book & Photo Essay: Palaces of Memory – India’s Coffee Houses

Palaces of Memory
by Stuart Freedman with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri

Published by Dewi Lewis (2015)

“The air of lassitude in these places, the stains on the table, are as important to the ‘historical attitude’ of the coffee drinker as the coffee itself.”

Stuart Freedman is a photographer and writer based between London and New Delhi whose work over he last 20 years has been published in major outlets around the world. 

This book, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is in Freedman’s words “a love letter” to the Indian Coffee House, a national network of cafes across India owned by their workers.  (Stuart’s Kickstart funding was to meet the costs of publishing a limited edition hardcover book rather than travel to take the photos).

Stuart’s attachment to the coffee houses began when he first started visiting India.  He describes them as a “refuge” and “a respite from the noise and movement of a difficult but fascinating city” and also a reminder of the : 

Suddenly, I felt more at home in a strange city. When I travelled through the country, I sought them out. As a young journalist, the Coffee Houses taught me to see similarity not difference: that people were the same the world over and that was a lesson to be cherished.

Passing time in these coffee houses, speaking with strangers and observing other customers, enabled Freedman to experience an India “far away from the stereotypes of both poverty and exotica”.

An interesting essay on Freedman’s website describes how the history of the coffee houses is more than about just coffee and how they were a social meeting place, an ‘adda’ – “a specifically Bengali meeting place: full of conversation and discussion” – a home from home where politics and culture were discussed.

Freedman also describes how the history of the coffee houses reveals the political and economic history of India from the opening of the earliest coffee houses in Kolkata and Madras during the years of British rule, through to Indian independence and the 1960s and 70s when the coffee house “was like a kitchen of ideas just waiting to be cooked”. Latterly, as Indian economic fortunes have changed, India is becoming more familiar with a different type of coffee house which does not encourage is customers to gather, sit and chat for long periods although the coffee houses it seems are continuing to survive, if not thrive.  

Chaudhuri’s foreword to the book is available online at The Telegraph of India.  In it he considers the shabbiness of the coffee houses, with their plastic or folding chairs and formica or wooden tables.  He cautions against assuming they reflect underdevelopment and suggests they reflect “a strategically cultivated ethos” or “cult of austerity” borne out of “the morality of Nehruvian socialism and Gandhi austerity”.  The unselfconscious simplicity of the coffee houses thereby reflecting a modernist aesthetic or ‘historical attitude’ –  “history not as knowledge, information, and fact, but as an assignation of meaning to shabbiness” – in the same way that “a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains”.

A gallery of images from Freedman’s book can be viewed on his website while this BBC report by Howard Johnson gives an insight into the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata:

Video: Flower Man of Calcutta (3m)

Danish photographer Ken Hermann’s video essay about the flower sellers at Kolkata’s Malik Ghat market.

Lovingly put together with commentary, the video is great. But to fully appreciate Ken’s work, be sure to catch his portraits of the flower men on his website www.kenhermann.com or his photo essay at www.maptia.com.

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: Overland to Singpore by Landrover, Tim Slessor

First Overland SlessorFirst Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005

 

 The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface.  Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial.  No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned.  Surviving  footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world.  Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest.  Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt.  Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing  They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company  Within months of  different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.

 

 

 

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