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: 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.

 

 

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: Andrew Eames on the trail of Agatha Christie

The 8.55 to Baghdad
by Andrew Eames

Published by Corgi (2005)

“She used to come here to do her shopping.
And to get her hair done.
From Nineveh.  With Max.”

It was this nugget about Agatha Christie, made to Andrew Eames while he was visiting Aleppo, that led him on his literary journey to find out what Agatha Christie was doing in the Middle East and to retrace her steps and to declare:

I had no idea that this doyenne of the drawing-room mystery had first traveled out to Iraq, alone, by train, as a thirty-something single mother.  And that thereafter she’d spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh’s wives with their constipation.

The result is this book which mixes part travelogue, part history and part biography.

Eames sets out from London to retrace Agatha Christie’s journey.  He travels on the Orient Express across Europe from London to Venice.  He continues by train through the Balkans, across Turkey and through Syria to Damascus  where the train line ends.

Orient express map

The onward journey to Baghdad in Christie’s day and when Eames repeated the journey was by bus across the desert.  This was the only way to avoid the time consuming trip through the Suez canal and around the Arabian peninsula.

When Christie made the journey, she travelled by ‘Nairn bus’ named after the New Zealand Nairn brothers who stayed on in the Middle East after the First World War to form a successful company that revolutionised transport between Damascus and Baghdad for 30 years.  By the time Christie made the journey, the cross desert service had only been running for a few years and had reduced the journey time to just 20 hours (for more on the Nairn brothers and their company see here and here).

Nairn_Transport_Co._luggage_label

Eames then continues on to Iraq’s archaeological sites and eventually to Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan.    

If, like me, you know little of Agatha Christie’s life, this book is an interesting introduction to certain aspects of it,and particularly her divorce and second marriage.  Eames succeeds in re-creating an aura of by gone travel and those aspects will appeal to anyone with an interest in travel between the wars.  He is a pleasant enough travelling companion bringing his travelling companions and the places he visits to life with a wry sense of humour.  He characterises his adventure as a journey back to sources; the source of Christie’s second marriage and from modern Europe to Ur, the site of one of the earliest known cities and to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Reading this book not only reminds us how much as changed since Agatha Christie made her journey.  It is also a reminder of how much has changed since Eames made his journey and how quickly those changes can take place.  At the end of his book he realises that his “interest in Agatha and her crips pieces of fiction had finally been overhauled by a far bigger story”, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which began three months after his trip ended.  His sadness at recalling Lt Col Tim Collins’ entreaty to his troops to “tread lightly” is now compounded by the knowledge that other places in his adventure, Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra, have now also been ravaged by conflict.  

Sadly, it is commonplace to read travel books and reflect on how travel to the place has changed since they were written, perhaps because of political changes or dangers; it is a truism of travel that as some places become safe to visit others become less so.  But it is particularly tragic when these changes involve such loss of life and the wanton destruction of sites which have survived the centuries.     

Read reviews of The 8.55 to Baghdad from the Independent, here, the Telegraph, here and the Chicago Tribune, here.

One of the UK’s top travel writers, Andrew Eames website is here.  It contains links to some of his published work.  Its sections ‘blog’ and ‘mags and rags’ also give an insight into the life of a travel writer and some interesting reflections on the publishing industry.

Agatha Christie’s own accounts of her travels in Syria and Iraq were published as Come Tell Me How You Live and earlier volume of travel writing about her travels to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as part of the British trade mission for the 1924 Empire Exhibition was published as The Grand Tour:

 

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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