Article & book: The Camino de Santiago & travel snobbery

We live in a world of systems and safety nets, and we learn at an early age how to navigate the labyrinth of modern life — leave the house, coin here, card there, please, thank you, timetable, schedule, departure, arrival, home safe, warm bed. The risks we face? Getting caught in traffic, missing a meeting, the corner-shop sold out of milk. And life’s essentials — food, water, shelter, contentment — are mere sideshows to this little merry-go-round.

Most of us easily fall in love with the romantic idea of a big adventure — grab a backpack and hiking boots, launch forth into a magical world of mountains and birdsong and fresh, clean air. Live. Breathe. Get fit like we always meant to. Take photos. Enjoy the simple things. Let modern life drop away.

This is an entertaining article from Tom Allen about snobbery and the Camino de Santiago.  

Noting that over 200,000 people hiked the Camino Santiago in 2014, making it one of the most popular hiking trails in the world, Allen takes aim at travellers who “tend to be the kind of ‘superior traveller’ who isn’t happy unless they’re getting one over on the ovine hordes”, the type who have to be “the first Westerner to go somewhere previously unreachable or unknown, or the only one doing something new and exciting, or generally just proving they’re ever-so-slightly better or wiser or more perceptive than every other dumb schmuck.”

True, his real target is a certain category of ‘adventurers’ but his observations apply equally well to travellers in general. 

Tired of people questioning what kind of adventure it can really be if so many people are hiking it, Allen laces up his boots and sets out along the Camino to uncover its virtues in spite of its popularity.  

Allen praises the Camino for providing a taste of real adventure with some degree of safety net for first-timers, Allen sees the value in the Camino because it might actually persuade people to make the leap of the sofa and give some form adventure a go.

You get the morphing landscapes, the constant exercise, the tangible sense of progress. You get the satisfaction of planning and executing; of braving the weather and coming out unscathed; of resting your weary legs at the end of a hard day. You get the feeling of immersion in a foreign land.  

As he progresses along the Camino, Allen realises that the Camino is not only a useful ‘gateway’ adventure but is also intrinsically enjoyable and offers the “surprisingly joyous sensation” of camaraderie and a shared goal.  

Tom Allen’s article is available at Medium or on his excellent blog, here.  

Reading Allen’s article had me looking out my copy of Taras Grescoe’s 2003 book, The End of Elsewhere, the introduction and first chapter to which are also about the Camino and, to some extent, pursue similar themes. However,  Grescoe’s target is bigger and is the whole notion of travel.  Why do we do it in the first place? 

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness” wrote Blaise Pascal, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.” Shivering on hostel floors and ferry decks, stuck ticketless on tropical isles, I’ve often asked myself the question I am now travelling to answer: why in God’s name can’t I just stay put. 

In an attempt to answer his own question and adopting a wry and irreverant approach, Grescoe deliberately follows the deepest furrows ploughed by the 700 hundred millions of annual tourists rather than seeking out “the world’s ever-diminishing pockets of authenticity.”

Grescoe begins at Cabo Fisterra in northwest Spain – Europe’s End of the Earth – and follows a route taking in some of the planet’s most visited places on the way to his destination, Tianya Haijao on Hainan – the End of the Earth in ancient Chinese cosmology.  

Starting out along the Camino de Santiago as a Camino-sceptic, and walking it in reverse to maximise the number of other pilgrims he met, Grescoe encounters a budget travel snob, eccentrics, commercialism, motives for undertaking the pilgrimage varying from the saintly to the libidinous and even an American who had been inspired to walk the Camino without having read Peolo Coehlo’s book about it.

Gradually, I began to grasp the advantages of walking, the oldest and simplest form of travel.  The more I walked, the more materialism and concern about self image seemed to slough away.

By the end of his time on the Camino, Taras Grescoe confessed to being a convert, appreciating the slow transition of landscapes and the subtle changes of the breezes during the day, gaining an understanding of Spain and the influence of rural traditions on its culture and feeling that in many ways the Camino and those who walk it had not changed greatly since the 12th century.

When Taras Grescoe’s book was published in 2003, there were 700 million tourists annually.  According to the World Tourism Council (WTC) that figure relates to number of international tourist arrivals around the world rather than to the number of individual tourists.  More importantly though, the figure has already increased to just under 1.2 billion and the WTC estimates that the figure could rise to 2 billion by 2026.  

The odds, therefore, of finding a corner of the world that no-one else has been to or happens to be visiting at the same time we choose to are only going to lengthen.

So, in order to be true travellers or adventurers, should we avoid popular or ‘obvious’ places and seek authenticity in ever more obscure parts of the world?  

Not necessarily.  In the same way that adventurers may eschew popular hiking trails to prove that they are ‘real’ adventurers, Paul Fussel noted in his 1980 book Abroad that, for the anti-tourist

Sedulously avoiding the standard sights is probably the best method of disguising your touristhood. In London one avoids Westminster Abbey and heads instead for the Earl of Burlington’s eighteenth-century villa at Chiswick. In Venice one must walk by circuitous smelly back passages far out of one’s way to avoid being seen in the Piazza San Marco.   

Fussell went on to label the affinity of some to see themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than mere ‘tourists’ as “a uniquely modern form of self-contempt” and a symptom and cause “of what the British journalist Alan Brien has designated tourist angst, defined as “a gnawing suspicion that after all … you are still a tourist like every other tourist.”  

Tom Allen seems to reach the same conclusion.  Observing that the people he met on the 800km long Camino possessed no extraordinary physical prowess but simply a desire to walk and complete it sometimes multiple times, he concludes: “perhaps that’s why superior travellers hate the Camino: it’s a powerful suggestion that there is nothing superior about them after all.”  The aim of adventuring where only few or none have been before could be seen as an exercise simply to set oneself apart from the crowd.  Or, to put it another way: “if everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”

Grescoe is making a slightly different point but there are parallels.  He gets carried away by the Camino and is swept up by it.  Feeling his materialism and concern about his self-image start to fall away and finding himself giving away money and possessions, Grescoe might agree with Allen, seeing the Camino was being a part of something with others rather than being apart from others.  While concerns about materialism might also recede in an adventure to a remote place, there is a difference in not being surrounded by shops and material things as opposed to being surrounded by them and caring less about them.  It is the difference between living a cloistered existence and living a ‘normal’ one.   

Ultimately, a large part of what seems to have made the Camino for Allen and Grescoe is its history and, perhaps contrary to what a lot of travel writing tells us we should seek from travel, its popularity and the many people they met along the way.  That doesn’t necessarily make the desire to be away from crowds wrong, it is just to say that we should examine the motive for it.  

Both Tom Allen’s article and Taras Grescoe’s book are refreshing and a reminder that what is important and what defines you is not where you go, but why and how you do it and that you do, in the first place, actually go.

For Allen, that is “to travel without expectations, to see what my senses tell me when they’re not obscured by my own ever-so-enlightened personal narrative.”

Sounds like a good ethos to me. 

 

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


Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Published by Penguin (1986)

I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have.

Roald Dahl is famous as the author of acclaimed children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, George’s Marvellous MedicineFantastic Mr Fox, Danny Champion of the World and, of course, Revolting Rhymes all of which were among my favourite books when I was growing up. 

Going Solo, however, is non-fiction and is the second of Dahl’s two short autobiographical works.  The first, Boy recalls his childhood and school days.  Going Solo finds Dahl leaving home and England to find his way in the world as an employee of the Shell oil company in an African outpost of the British Empire.  A companion volume to both is Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother.

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


The PSES (now the British Exploring Society and part of the Royal Geographical Society) was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, who was a member of Captain Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.  The expedition which Dahl joined involved hiking through Newfoundland carrying a 114lb pack and involved experimenting with eating boiled lichen and reindeer most supplement their meagre rations.

Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after leaving school, Dahl told Plomley that he knew at the very least that he wanted to “get a job that will take me to distant lands.”  

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s.  Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China.  These were distant and magical lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more.  But it was a very different matter in 1933.  (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl went for an interview with Shell to join its Eastern Staff.  One of 5 successful interviewees out of 60 candidates, Dahl believed that Shell’s board of directors had been impressed by his school prize for heavyweight boxing.  

Dahl’s Shell Company interview, his trip to Newfoundland and early working days in London as a businessman are covered in Boy:

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer,  His only compensation is absolute freedom.  He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl also described in Boy how he had been offered and turned down a position in Egypt:

What I wanted was jungles and lions and elephants and tall coconut palms swaying on silvery beaches, and Egypt had none of that.  Egypt was desert country.  It was bare and sandy and full of tombs and relics and Egyptians and I didn’t fancy it at all. 

Within a week of turning down Egypt, Dahl was offered East Africa and Going Solo picks up his story after the Shell interview and the completion of two years’ training in the UK and joins Dahl on his way to Mombasa in 1938 aboard the SS Mantilla.

Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.   

Only 22 years old, Dahl was headed for Tanganyika (what is now broadly Tanzania) and Dar es Salaam,  where he learned Swahili, shook scorpions from his boots, contracted malaria, visited sisal plantations and diamond mines and “saw that chaps had the right type of lubricating oil for machinery.” 

Dahl was in East Africa for only a short time when the Second World War broke out.  Dahl saw active service in North Africa, Greece and Palestine before being invalided back to the UK.  

From there he was sent to Washington DC and formed part of British intelligence’s efforts to persuade the United States to join the war.  It was in Washington and after a meeting with CS Forester that Dahl began to write.  

At the end of the war, Dahl resigned from the Shell company and started his writing career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Going Solo focuses on Dahl’s time in East Africa and as a pilot in the Second World War.  It contains entertaining descriptions of his journey out to Africa and the colonial/empire types he meets on board as well as his brief period working in Tanganyika where he encountered lions and black mambas.  This part of Going Solo is relatively short although, as Dahl frankly acknowledged: 

any job, even if it is in Africa, is not continuously enthralling, I have tried to be as selective as possible and have written only about those moments that I consider memorable.

Dahl, however, sells his East African experience short in his foreword to Going Solo.  A volume of Dahl’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock, was published in 2016 under the title Love From Boy.  

These letters contain funny and candid glimpses of Dahl’s experiences in Africa, from daily routines, nights getting ‘whistled’ at the Dar es Salaam club, drinking coconut milk and gin, fancy dress parties, living 50 yards from the beach in a villa with staff, snooker, golf, cinema visits, dinners with colonels, breakfasts of tea and an orange and hours spent listening to the wireless or symphonies on his gramophone: 

It looks as though [my drinks bill] may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper [drunkard] 

As the Second World War draws closer, both Going Solo and the letters in Love from Boy chart the rising tensions with the East African German community.  In one letter, Dahl recounts an evening spent throwing darts at photos of Hitler and Goebbels, reporting:

There’s the hell of a showdown – you see there are so many Germans in this place & everything is rather on the boil – we seemed to have squeezed the bugger…Moral: Don’t throw darts at Hitler’s Balls in public they’re private parts. 

After a brief spell in the King’s African Rifles rounding up Germans in East Africa at the outbreak of the war, Dahl drove 600 miles to Nairobi at the end of 1939 where he enlisted as an airman and completed his basic pilot training.  

He writes about the “marvellous fun” of flying over Africa and viewing the Rift Valley’s volcanic craters, lakes, villages, flamingos, wildebeest and giraffes and how, in Iraq where he underwent further training, tribesmen took potshots at the planes from the hills.  

While in Iraq, Dahl took a photograph of the Arch of Ctesiphon while flying a biplane, for which he was given a bronze medal by the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo.  His letters also describe sightseeing trips to Cairo, the Pyramids and to Babylon and detail the daily hazards of life in Iraq from scorpions, snakes, the flooding of the Euphrates and the Bedouin.  

After Iraq, Dahl was posted to North Africa and then to Greece where he took part in the Battle for Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter before being evacuated to Egypt.  From Suez, he drove alone up to Haifa where he rejoined his squadron and the Syrian Campaign against the Vichy Airforce.

It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome. 

Going Solo is primarily a wartime memoir but evokes the places he is posted at that particular time from colonial life in East Africa, drinking retsina and eating olives in Greece and encountering Jewish refugees in (then) Palestine.  His letters in Love from Boy give more of a feel for daily life, are amusing and well worth a read.  

Dahl’s descriptions of air battles in Going Solo are exhilarating although his enthralment with flying is tempered by sober descriptions of how only 3 of the 16 men he trained with survived the war, comrades who were killed and the long odds of surviving as a wartime pilot. 

However, before reading Going Solo, I hadn’t appreciated that Dahl was nearly among those who died following a near fatal crash in North Africa which left him badly burned and temporarily without sight.

This crash has been credited with starting Dahl’s writing career.  According to Ronald Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock:   

A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.  (from Roald Dahl: the plane crash that gave birth to a writer by Donald Sturrock, published in The Daily Telegraph, 9 August 2010)

Dahl himself once said of the incident:

It’s my cosy little theory, that because i was a fairly square young chap intent on a happy business life with the Shell Company and that I started writing soon after that maybe the head helped. (from Roald Dahl: In His Own Words)

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


Dahl continued travelling in later life including to Japan as part of his work on the film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.  Dahl also worked on the screenplay for the film of Fleming’s childrens’ story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

He went onto to become a highly successful writer of children’s and adult fiction.  In relation to his writing, Dahl thought of himself primary as an entertainer but also tried his best to teach children to love reading books:

My crusade is to teach small children to love books so much that it becomes a habit and they realise that books are worth reading.

Books, if you are going to be anything, are vital in life.

For more on Roald Dahl’s life, listen to this edited selection of interviews (or click on embedded player below) covering different episodes from his life and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as Roald Dahl: In HIs Own Words as part of the BBC’s Roald Dahl at 100 season.


Alternatively, try Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl (which was also serialised in The Telegraph, here) or Sturrock’s edited collection of Dahl’s correspondence to his mother which is an excellent and essential companion to Boy and Going Solo and contains letters from his Newfoundland trip, time in East Africa and his war years.  There is also Jennet Conant’s history, The Irregulars, which focuses on Roald Dahl’s time in Washington DC.

      

Article: Democracy, graffiti & hope in Greece

A voice in the haze ruminated about “the financial terrorism” that led to Greece’s economic crisis. An elegant old woman sipped her glass of ouzo, rolled a cigarette, and swiped away the political doomsaying. She had the watchful look of experience. “We will be okay,” she said.

Politics, democracy, philosophy, religion, grafitti and hope are intertwined in this great article about Athens and Greece from James Reeves’s blog, Atlas Minor, which I came across courtesy of Longreads.  

Certainly there is a better way to inspire civic engagement than giving voice to fanatics, flirting with fascism, lurching from one humiliation to the next, and allowing very real lives to be destroyed along the way. 

In a thoughtful series of sketches accompanied by rich and haunting black and white images, James Reeves reflects on Trump’s ascendancy, democracy, tyranny and nationalism and the economic crisis that continues to ravage Greece. 

https://twitter.com/MrJamesReeves/status/831305268139065344

At the Agora and Parthenon, in cafes, in orthodox churches and on the streets of Athens Reeves, who is a writer and teacher of philosophy and history, contemplates the pendulum shift from a semi-rational world to one which is more unpredictable and full of anxiety. 

Yet in a country where tourists come to view the decayed ruins of ancient democracy and look back in time, Reeves finds a country looking to its future, with optimism and hope expressed in the grafitti on the city’s walls.  

Let the streets be a feast of art for all. And if all this comes to pass…everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (billboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.

Drawing on the the Biblical metaphor of the fall of Babylon and the writing on the wall as a parallel, Reeves senses the ending of an old world ending and finds himself anxious to return to the US and to participate in what must come next.  

A thoughtful, relevant and timely article. 

Article & Video: Of Land & Sea, Boat magazine in the Faroe Islands

The islands are almost eerily void of man-made sound.  The wind whistles, the sheep bellow, the waves crash against the coastline and rearrange the stones, clapping and cracking as they roll around.  The quiet is instantly comforting and sets forth the pace of life here without you even having to think about it.

Over the past few years there have been several articles in the mainstream press (The GuardianThe Financial Times, The Independent and Fodorsprofiling a ‘new breed of independent travel magazines”.  

As Tom Robbins in The Financial Times explained, these new magazines:

share a distinct look and approach, their similarities emphasising how different they are to the glossy mainstream titles. Produced by independents rather than big publishing houses, they are typically quarterly or biannual rather than monthly, and usually cost at least £10. Many have gnomic one-word names; covers are simple and striking, stripped of attention-grabbing cover lines; the paper is usually heavy, expensive and matt. 

All have websites, naturally.  Some have online content (and some more than others).  Some are available as electronic editions through apps such as Readbug, as downloads from their websites or own apps.  But, what really sets them apart is their commitment to print editions.  These are different though to Wanderlust, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Lonely Planet Traveller or NatGeo Traveller.  

Sometimes seen as part of a ‘slow journalism’ movement, their publication cycle is deliberately less frequent and the print editions lovingly created, something to be treasured rather than left on a train.  Not widely available in shops, I am fortunate that a handful of places in central London carry a decent range of these new magazines. 

Boat is one of these magazines.

Published twice a year, Boat focuses on a different place for each issue (usually a city) with the editorial team relocating there for several weeks to research and work with locals to produce the content.  Boat calls this its ‘inside/out approach’, with locals deciding “what they want the world to know about their city” to ensure that perspectives on the places are “varied and balanced”.  This allows Boat to ‘dig deep’ in each place they cover, to meet the locals and avoid “the typical fly-by top 10 lists, tourist hotspots or new openings”.

Ancient literature describes a mythical island kingdom called Thule where “the sun goes to rest” and “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three.  It has been suggested that the Faroe Islands were in fact this mythical place.

For its latest outing, Boat visited the Faroe Islands, a group of 18 volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway.  The islands are self governing although formally part of Denmark.

In this superb issue, Boat covers everything from local culinary traditions, the islands’ first Michelin-starred restaurant, alternative night life, the origin of the islands’ architecture (intersting given the absence of wood-producing trees), its LBGT movement, the struggle for women’s rights, sustainable approaches to aquaculture and power generation as well of course its resurgent wool and knitwear industry and the lives of the islands’ shepherds.  

The feeling of loneliness is a mental state.  It’s not dependent on the number of people alongside you, but instead your relationships with them.

Boat travels to the Faroes’ most remote parts and, in one of the centrepiece features – Of Land and Sea – Fred Scott takes the twice weekly helicopter to the least populated island, Stóra Dímun, which is home to just 8 out of the 50,000 or so people in the Faroe Islands, and hears the captivating story of Eva and Jógvan and their two children who run Stóra Dímun’s sheep farm.

In another feature, Tom Eagar visits the Faroes’ most westerly island, Mykines, home to only 10 people but hundreds of thousands of sea birds including puffins, which can be viewed either on a cliff or on a plate in the local cafe.  Perched at the tip of the island in this remote archipelago and surrounded only by sea, Tom Eagar observes: 

It’s rare that you’re ever able to see so far and in so many directions. That may sound like a frivolous observation, but even the grandest of landscaeps are filled with things:  mountains, forest, lakes, land – just stuff.  Out here, facing west, it feels like we’re half way between the world and forever.

Boat covers all this through almost twenty insightful stories accompanied by beautiful images and videos on its website. The pieces are strong on local voice, allowing the islanders to tell their own stories and give their perspective, revealing a real sense of the Faroes and what life there is like.

This is one to settle in with for an afternoon, to savour and get lost in with some Teitur, Konni Kass or even Carl Neilsen’s Fantasy Journey to the Faroe Islands on the stereo.  I’m looking forward to see how Boat top this and, well, to those harbingers keen to pronounce the end of good travel writing, pish! 

Books & Audio: A Papertrail to Elsewhere – 3 books about places

Thanks to a caffeine break at Kioskafe near Paddington while cycling to work one morning last week, I stumbled across two Good Things.

The first is a journal called Elsewhere.  Founded and edited by Berlin-based Paul Scraton and Julia Stone, Elsewhere is “dedicated to involved and intelligent writing about place, whether from travel writers or local ramblers, deep topographers or psychogeographers, overland wanderers or edgeland explorers.”

One of a growing number of new print travel publications, Elsewhere is published twice a year and is now in its third year.  The latest issue has essays about places as diverse as Papua, Portugal and Prague and its fifth issue must be due fairly soon.

Curious to know more, a quick search revealed that Elsewhere‘s website has a blog featuring a regular monthly ‘postcard’, a book review and essay such as this piece about Copenhagen by Laura Harker in which she examines the preconceptions we have about places gleaned from TV, film and books and what happens to those preconceptions when we actually visit them.  

The Elsewhere blog led me to the second Good Thing, the Papertrail Podcast, a monthly podcast series in which Alex Blott, its founder, interviews authors and creatives about three of their favourite books.

Anyway, it turns out that Alex’s most recent Papertrail interview was with Elsewhere co-founder Paul Scraton who selected three books about places.  I settled in an ordered another coffee.

You can listen to the interview below or on Papertrail‘s website.


Scraton’s first choice of book was What I Saw, a collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, written in Berlin between 1920 and 1933.  Interestingly, it is translated from a German collection, Roth in Berlin, which was subtitled ‘A Reader for Walkers’.  

Athough appearing in newspapers, the pieces are taken from the feuilleton supplement, the section which contained more literary writing and criticism than the news sections.  

The original German version of Roth in Berlin contained a practical dimension which, Scraton explains, acted as walking guides.  Those parts are omitted from the translation, largely because many places described no longer exist but, for Scraton, the book still served as an introduction to Berlin and some of its stories when he moved to Berlin about 15 years ago.  

The Guardian‘s review of What I Saw is here and The NY Times‘ review is here.

Scraton’s second choice was Jan Morris’ ‘last’ book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere in which the story of the city is intertwined with Jan Morris’ own story, looking back over 50 years.  As The New Yorker put it:

[Jan Morris] who first visited Trieste as a young soldier in 1946 and last as an elderly woman, plumbs the mysteries of the city’s melancholy, and the result is a meditation on the locus of the self and its confabulation of psychic history and accidents of geography.

In the course of an appreciative discussion about the book and Trieste itself in the Papertrail interview, Paul Scraton describes it as:

a powereful book about place, but also about writing and about how we interact with a place as individuals.

To read more about Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, see The Guardian‘s review here and The Observer‘s review here.

The last book, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, is a novel about “the disintegration of a country and the disintregation of a family at the same time”.   In this short novel, author Vladan Borojevic tells the story of young man who believed his father to have died during the civil war following the break up of Yugoslavia but, after discovering that he is not only alive but also on the run for war crimes, embarks on a journey around the Balkans to learn the truth about his father.

Three fascinating and excellent books and some interesting insights about how we understand places in layered ways and the way that other writers have understood a place can influence our own understanding, this is a podcast worth a listen.

Other podcasts in the Papertrails series can be found here, or on iTunes.

In addition to editing and writing for Elsewhere, Paul Scraton’s writing can be found on the blogs Under a Grey Sky and Caught by the River.  He has also writen a book to be published in June 2017 by Influx Press, Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which I will be looking out for this summer along with the next issue of Elsewhere

Book & Video: All aboard the cyclists’ special (15m27s)

And as I rose up and knew I was tired and I continued my journey. (Edward Thomas)

Two contrasting pieces about cycling:  a short film on the joys of cycling for pleasure as part of a group and a book on cycling for a living as a courier in London which touches on cycling’s darker, obssessive side.  

We go cycling for pleasure, not penance.

Cyclists Special is a 1955 British Transport Film promoting the virtues of weekend cycling for pleasure using special Sunday train services, with their dedicated carriages for storing cycles and buffet cars supplying packed lunches.  

Starting in Willesden Junction, London (a station close to my heart), cyclists take the train to Rugby where they begin a tour of parts of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Leicesterhire, exploring the countryside and taking in places of historical interest like Kenilworth Castle.

Once outside the town each group spins away on its own particular route, away from the main road into the peaceful countryside where tree lined lanes welcome these friendly positions that bring their exhaust smoke, no petrol fumes, no record or blaring horn.  Only the humming of tires and the talk that arises between solicitor and carpenter, teacher and typesetter electrician and radiographer; between people of all ages ranks and station, who rediscover their common humanity in finding countryside, exercise and companionship all-in-one.

As well as bikes, Cyclists Special has ties, jackets, cloth caps, plus fours, pipes, Brylcreem, quifs and trouser ankles as clipped as the accents.  Cheery and informative this enjoyable film celebrates the resorative effects of cycling in the country, spending time with people of different backgrounds and occupations, gaining different perspectives and breaking the routine.

There’s always a certain excitement about coming to a strange place.  Over the years you may have trained yourself to arrive anywhere looking as bored as a bactrian camel but if you’re honest with yourself a new place sets you simmering as your home town never could…every place like every person has its own unique history and character.

Containing wisdom such as “a cycle tour without a map is like new potatoes without the smell of mint”, it is unmistakably a film of its time.  

However, I love its inclusive sentiment and it reminded me of Alastair Humphries’ ‘anyone can do it’ attitude to adventure and his notion that adventure doesn’t have to be ultimate, epic or awesome.  A bit like Al Humphries’ Fred Whitton challenge and The Office #microadventure videos, Cyclists Special is an antidote to “hype and hyperbole” and, as Al Humphries might say:  “Everyone is invited – and that’s part of the magic of cycling.”

Jon Day’s book, Cyclogeography, on the other hand, emphasises a darker, though no less spell-binding, side of cycling and its focus is firmly on urban rather than rural cycling.  
 

Day is a lectuer in English at King’s College London and spent several years as a cycle courier in London.  Based on his experiences, Cyclogeography mixes memoir with pyschogeography, philosophy, history and literary diversions.  

The title is a play on the term psychogeography which, according to Joseph Hart, “encourages us to buck the rut, to follow some new logic that lets us experience our landscape anew, that forces us to truly see what we’d otherwise ignore.”  

Day reflects on Baudelaire and the flâneurs‘ roles in understanding and portraying the urban environment by exploring it on foot, and joins Valeria Luiselli and Paul Fournel in speculating on the bicycle’s underrepresentation in travel writing and wondering why there is no cycleur equivalent to the flâneur. 

Drawing on his cycle courier experiences, Day takes us on a journey through London to experience the city anew, and from the saddle.  Weaving through gaps in trafffic, passageways, spaces beneath buildings and other unseen parts of the city, Day portrays the cycle courier as an outsider and someone who exists on the fringes of the city’s economic activity, practically inhabiting a parallel city to the one the rest of us live in. 

Day’s writing is infectious and it is difficult not to be caught up in his excellent descriptions of how cycle couriers learn the city’s abstract properties, its rhythms, smells, signs and textures so that they eventually come “to feel part of the city’s secret networks, at one with its hidden rivers and its dead-letter drops, at one remove from its anonymous crowds of commuters.”  

Day examines the cyclist’s relationship with his machine, a life measured in revolutions and also describes the physical and mental impacts of cycling.  One minute he is revelling in the “the sheer joy of being physically tired at the end of a day’s work”, “the exhilaration of pedalling quickly through the city” and “the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement”, and the next he is discretely vomitting by the side of the road after pushing himself in a street race and recounting stories about early competition cyclists whose obsession led to bodies ravaged by drugs and overexertion.  

Along the way Day takes a number of diversions and examines cycling in a variety of forms including escape, observation, exploration and art.  He meets artist Richard Long and writer Iain Sinclair, who voices his concerns about the changing nature of cycling, its politicisation and its shift from being subversive to becoming a colonising force in the city. 

He also takes us on a literary journey, drawing on the work of writers like Jonathan Raban, Iain Sinclair, Will Self, Rebecca Solnit, Samuel Beckett, Robert Macfarlane, Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells as well as Guy Debord and Roland Barthes.  Drawing a parallel between writing and cycling, Day notes that:  

The rhythms of movement provided by cycling seem perfectly suited to the writer’s need to notice. At bicycle-speed your eyes focus on a single scene as you glide past, and for a few seconds you can isolate one incident before you’re rolled onward. Then on to the next. The saccades of the eye’s snatch-and-focus synchronise with your velocity, flicking from rubbish bin to lamppost, from bus swerving out in front of you to pedestrian about to cross the road in front. The bicycle provides a road’s-eye view midway between the ponderous bus-gaze and the start/stop stress of the car.  Driving, in the city at any rate, is binary, reverential distancing.  Cycling flows, converting static and isolated glimpses of the city into a moving, zoetropic flicker of life.

Valeria Luiselli also noted this ‘cinemtaic’ quality of cycling in her Manifesto a Velo (from which Day quotes) noting that “the bicycle is not only noble in relation to body rhythms” but “is also generous to thought”.  Contrasting the cyclist with the pedestrian, motorist and users of public transport, Luiselli concluded that, “skimming along on two wheels, the rider finds just the right pace for observing the city and being at once its accomplice and its witness.”  I am reminded of the truth of this every time I go out on my bike in London. 

Despite the exhilaration and infectious energy of the book, Day highlights a darker side of cycling, revealing the loneliness of the job, human contact reduced to voices over the radio and the margins of urban life, suicides, the obsessive nature of cyclists and their acceptance and deliberate running of physical risks from knackered knees to the ‘alleycat’ street races.  However, even in its darker moments, Cyclogeography is a compulsive read. 

For more about Cyclogeography see the reviews in The Guardian here and here, The Independent, The Times Literary Supplement and The Financial Times

To read more by Jon Day and for biographical information, see here and also his contributions to n+1 and The London Review of Books blog.

Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of this world—all, too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey through the Cevennes is a classic travelogue.

Undertaken in 1878 when Stevenson was a young man and before he had found fame as a writer, Travels was published in 1879 and was one of Stevenson’s first published works.

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The journey itself was a 12 day, 120 mile, self-supported hike through tough, sparsely populated terrain in an area of south-central France that had seen a protestant uprising during the reign of Louis XIV.

An often remarked feature of the journey is Stevenson’s love for occasionally sleeping out of doors, preferring to use a bespoke sack, rather than using a tent or finding an inn.

A tent, above all for a solitary traveller, is troublesome to pitch, and troublesome to strike again…A sleeping-sack, on the other hand…does not advertise your intention of camping out to every curious passer-by. This is a huge point. If a camp is not secret, it is but a troubled resting-place.

From his description, what he refers to as a sleeping-sack sounds like a setup akin to a bivvy bag and improvised basha.

I decided on a sleeping-sack….and….in case of heavy rain I proposed to make myself a little tent, or tentlet, with my waterproof coat, three stones, and a bent branch.

With his love for informal and makeshift outdoor sleeping, Stevenson would have a great deal in common with modern day adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Anna McNuff.

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Stevenson writes evocatively about being outdoors at night, sitting smoking and drinking brandy (these two items seem to have sustained him on his journey) while looking at the silhouettes of trees around him, appreciating the silence and beauty of the night sky.

I…sat upright to make a cigarette. The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still…I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars.

Communing with nature and being self sufficient is a large part of Stevenson’s quest in Travels.

He writes about his yearning for pure adventure and the thrill of waking and finding himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.

He has no high purpose beyond that of travelling “for travel’s sake”, “to move”“to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly” and “come down off this feather-bed of civilisation.”

He yearns to be ‘in the moment’, an “exacting present” that occupies and composes the mind and he delights in travel’s non-conformity, feeling “independent of material aids”, and thinking that he had “rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists.”

Unable to carry his heavy sleeping sack and equipment, Stevenson purchases himself a donkey at the start of his journey.

It is through his relationship with the donkey, Modestine, that Stevenson highlights the second theme of Travels.

From the preface and throughout, Stevenson continually returns to notions of friendship and companionship. This creates a tension with his desire for occasional solitude rather than a “close and noisy ale-house”, although ultimately he reconciles them.

He writes of the “partial intimacies” formed when travelling and enjoys the easy camaraderie of travelling, setting the world to rights with strangers, meeting Trappist monks or expressing his “hearty admiration” to the waitress Clarisse which she took “like milk, without embarrassment or wonder.”

As is also true for many travellers, Stevenson found that the parting of company was accompanied by a mixture of regret and glee as the traveller “shakes off the dust of one stage before hurrying forth upon another.”

If he doesn’t quite anthropomorphise Modestine, he gives her real personality and humanises their relationship when he writes of the agony he feels at causing her pain, her virtues, faults and the loss he feels when they part company which it is difficult not to share.

A charming and personal travelogue, Travels is an absorbing, short read containing a great deal for modern travellers to identify with.

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It is still possible to follow Stevenson’s route and a small tourist industry has grown up around visitors who want to retrace his steps along what is now walking route GR70, either with or without a donkey.

Examples of writers who have done so are here and here.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg

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.

Article: Teju Cole on Switzerland & the desire to be away from home

What is interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.

Great piece from Teju Cole in The New York Times from last year.

Cole was invited to spend six months in Switzerland in 2014 by Literaturhaus in Zurich with apartment and stipend thrown in.

What follows is an insightful essay in which Cole contemplates Switzerland, photography and his own discovery of the country.

Trying to develop his photographic voice, Cole reflects on the impressive mountain landscape (the key to unlocking an understanding of the country) and attempts by artists and photographers through history to capture its essence.

Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical.

In the process he reflects on the nature of tourism and his identity as a traveller, recognising that he too is “part of a great endless horde”.

As he grapples with self-doubt about his ability to say something unique about Switzerland through his photos, he descends from the grandeur and sublimity of the mountains, Switzerland’s metonym, to the detail of life its valleys.

Searching for meaning in what he observes, Cole reflects on notions of home and also Heimweh and Fernweh, the German words for homesickness and a longing to be away from home.

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’” But to have merely thought of here would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities, the peculiarities that are not written in guidebooks. Only direct observation can reveal those.

The subject of Cole’s essay claims to be travel photography or photography of places but his observations could equally apply to travel writing.

Not entirely at home when away, yet unable to remain at home, he contemplates an in between state. For Cole, Switzerland embodies that state while his search for meaning through photography could be a metaphor for the experience of travel itself.

Well worth a read.

Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



Article: Budapest to Berlin – stranger on a train, stranger still in Berlin

As we rolled out of the city, tracing the Danube back towards its source, a man served coffee and handed out newspapers. I settled into my chair and waited for a stranger to ask me to murder his father.

In this short article for The Guardian, Ed Cumming doesn’t quite execute the perfect cross-Europe jaunt.

In Budapest, he encounters ruin bars, remnants of the Habsburg imperial family and the joys of travelling by train through central Europe before sampling Berlin’s nightlife which, well, disrupts his travel itinerary and explains why they put they put the ‘easy’ in easyJet.

Discover more of Ed Cumming’s thoughts and articles on Twitter, @edcumming.

Article: Alastair Humphreys busks his way across Spain in Laurie Lee’s footsteps

When you plan an adventure some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” And so you’ll often walk alone. But If you make your journeys like this you will have your reward, so long as all you want at the end is a cold, crisp beer.

Alastair Humphreys hosted an evening to promote his latest book, Grand Adventures, back in May.  The event was organised by the travel book specialists, Stanfords, and took place at the Prince of Wales pub on Drury Lane in London’s theatreland near Covent Garden. 

Being close not only to where I work but also the imposing Art Deco Freemasons Hall (no connection to my job), I normally associate the pub with after work drinks on the pavement outside and the Freemasons I have seen descending the stairs from the pub’s first floor room carrying oversized briefcases.  So, it was nice at last to have the chance to form a different association with the ‘PoW’.     

Alastair Humphreys was entertaining, enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging others to try their hands at adventures, big or small. Towards the end of the evening, he outlined the ongoing preparations for his own next adventure.  

Humphreys told the crowded upstairs room that a story about someone else’s journey can often serve as an inspiration for your own journey.  As I sat in silent, self-satisfied agreement, Humphreys name-checked Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger as inspirations, before citing Laurie Lee’s As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning as his favourite travel book (if I wasn’t already, I must surely have been smiling and nodding with approval by now).

It was for this reason, Humphreys explained, that he was currently having violin lessons. He intended to follow in Laurie Lee’s footsteps and walk across Spain supporting himself financially only with the money he earned from busking.

Alastair Humphreys seems to have forged a career largely from persuading others that they need no particular talent or skill to undertake adventures of many different kinds provided that they have the enthusiasm and desire to go out and make something happen and the determination to see it through and succeed.  Alastair Humphreys is indeed a great advert for his own philosophy of adventuring.  

Thanks to Instagram, it was easy to follow his progress as Humphreys posted regular updates from his journey throughout the summer, posting a mixture of photos, video shorts and text sharing stories and reflections about his trip.  

In his posts, Humphreys explains that it is not only Lee’s writing he admires but also his style of travel noting that he “travelled slow, lived simply, slept on hilltops, and loved conversations with the different people he met along the hot and dusty road.”

Humphreys’ wanderings in Spain were great to follow.  Overcoming his fears about playing violin in public, we follow his disappointments and triumphs as he lived from hand to mouth.  It is a story of small successes and pleasures, measured in handfuls of Euros, but also of a tough life on the road walking across Spain’s meseta in the heat of summer before crossing the mountains of the Sistema Central and arriving in Madrid.  

Along the way, Humphreys’ Instagram posts capture the joys of travelling solo, adapting to the tempo of the Spanish way of life, settling into the rhythm of his journey and enjoying the abundance of time:

Time expands when you are away on a journey. It feels voluptuous and luxurious. Back home, time is my scarcest and most precious commodity… And now here I am beneath a tree, watching the leaves, listening to the swallows…I have nothing. Nothing but time. So scarce at home, so bountiful out here that I wallow in an excess of it. I’m wilfully inviting boredom (though I’ve rarely felt it, yet). I’m allowing my brain a fallow month to wander where it wonders and to recalibrate a little. 

Tramping across Spain, Humphreys received unexpected and generous hospitality, enjoyed beautiful scenery, found idyllic places to sleep for the night and also novel places to cool off.     

Setting off solo to follow a literary hero’s footsteps with nothing but his wits and a nascent proficiency in playing the violin may be a touch quixotic but is still impressive.  In the process, Humphreys shows what determination can do, living by his creed that the expertise one needs to undertake an adventure can, to a large degree, be obtained along the way.  That must have made the final cerveza he enjoyed in Madrid just that little bit sweeter and makes you wonder, maybe, just maybe, I could… 

Follow Alastair Humphreys’ journey across Spain on Instagram – www.instagram.com/al_humphreys/ – or find out more about him on his website: www.alastairhumphreys.com.

Video: Roma – city of yearning (3m27s)

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.
Giotto di Bondone

Brilliant video of Rome from digital director and photographer Oliver Astrologo. 

Bells, coffee, cobbles, fountains, vespas, street life and Rome’s stunning architecture all feature in this video.  With interesting angles, good use of drone footage, an original score and fine editing to give it drama and pace, this short film is definitely one to watch and, like any trip to Rome, it is over too quickly and will leave you wanting more.

Oliver Astrologo’s other work can be found at vimeo.com/oliverastrologo, oliverastrologo.com and instagram.com/oliverhl/.  Nod to Travel + Leisure for featuring this video. 

Article: In Athens & Crete with Daphne Du Maurier

Fasten your seat belts. Anticipation is the breath of life. 

Unexpected and great article from Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, about a trip to Athens and Crete from the 1971 issue of Holiday magazine.  

Daphne du Maurier transports her readers from the wild, rainy winter of Cornwall to the bright sunshine of Crete via reminisces of youthful journeys to Greece.  

Nothing surpasses the feeling of excitement that comes with the first sight of scenes unglimpsed before.

In contrast to the rough, vagabond trips she made when she was young, du Maurier opts for luxury and after treating herself some pre-trip shopping takes the plane to Athens.  After a short spell sight-seeing, she continues on to Crete and picks up a rental car to reach her destination, the fishing village Hagios Nikólaos. 

In this enthusiastic piece, du Maurier conveys the excitement of realising a travel dream and finding an idyll abroad. She happily makes comparisons with fishing villages in her beloved West Country while unabashedly acknowledging the change in her travelling style.  Bouncing bus journeys may have been amusing once but having someone being sick on her feet (or her velveteen slacks) on this trip would have been less than funny.

Holiday is a testament to the fact that some things still manage to get lost in an age when almost everything is archived, or at least mentioned, online. (Josh Lieberman)

Holiday was an American magazine published between 1946 and 1977 well known for employing famous authors to write travel essays which drew its readers into the jet-set lifestyle of the post-war years – when travel by ocean liner was still common and air travel glamorous and new.  

Boasting among its contributors Jack Kerouac, Arthur Miller, James Michener, Eric Ambler, Paul Bowles, John Steinbeck, Lawrence Durrell, Ian Fleming and VS Pritchett the magazine was also famous for its striking and original artwork as this article in Vanity Fair explains.    

In a loving tribute to Holiday in the Paris Review, Josh Lieberman explains how he stumbled across the magazine in an old bookshop and started collecting it after realising it was a trove of lost masterpieces.  Although a “handful of the pieces are dated”, Lieberman notes, “like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless.” 

Holiday was relaunched as a bi-annual publication in 2014.  A collection of full text stories from the original magazine appear on Josh Lieberman’s blog.     

 

 

Book: Foreign Faces by V.S. Pritchett

Foreign Faces
by V.S. Pritchett

Bloomsbury 2011 (first published 1964)

Literature is made out of the misfortunes of others. A large number of travel books fail because of the monotonous good luck of their authors.

This collection of travel essays by VS Pritchett has one of the best opening lines of any travel collection.  

Not many travel writers would begin by proclaiming themselves to be an offensive traveller, but Pritchett does and has a point.  However, not wishing to be misunderstood he is careful to explain that he is not prejudiced, narrow-minded or someone who travels with unrealistic expectations.  

His point is more elementary; that the nature of travel is in some way offensive.  As if that was not enough, Pritchett confesses that he compounds this by virtue of being a writer before going on to list some of the offense he has caused.  

Reading this essay, it is tempting to think that Pritchett must be talking about other travellers.  After all, our own way of travel is sensitive to local cultures and respectful to the people we meet so surely could not cause deliberate offence.  Besides, we know what Evelyn Waugh knew – “we are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow”, right?  

Wrong.  Pritchett might single out tourists as the one true source of annoyance when travelling but he makes it quite clear that we, “hypocrite lectuers”, are offensive travellers too.  It is a point with which Paul Theroux seems to agree:

Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also an elaborate bumming evasion, allowing us to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people’s privacy — being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders. The traveler is the greediest kind of romantic voyeur…

from Ghost Train to an Eastern Star 

VS Pritchett may have viewed travel as offensive but that did not mean that he disapproved of it.  Far from it.

Although famous as a critic and author of short stories, Pritchett was an avid traveller and wrote several travel books.  His life is a classic example of the link between writing and travel on the one hand and being a writer and a traveller on the other. 

Paul Theroux picked up on this when writing about Pritchett shortly after his death in 1997:

A classic way to succeed in England, if you come from the wrong class or have the wrong accent, is to leave the country and go far away. That was Pritchett’s solution — and it worked for him as it has for many other English writers…France gave him a second language and inspired his short stories. Travel in Spain came soon after.

Foreign travel was crucial to Pritchett’s literary ambitions and Theroux quotes from one of Pritchett’s short stories to illustrate the similarity between being a traveller and writer and how both inhabit a place beyond frontiers.  Susan Sontag has also written about this from her own perspective in the eulogistic essay about Richard Halliburton’s travel books in the collection Where the Stress Falls.

Pritchett’s first book was in fact a travelogue, Marching Spain.  In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, Pritchett recalled that this book was accepted by the publisher only on the condition that he would also write a novel and so initially, it was travel and travel writing that drove his fiction even if fiction was the more commercially successful.

Obviously mindful that unfortunate events can be felicitous for travel writers, Pritchett recalled in the same interview how his first travelogue was not much than an account of a journey:

What I was really rather sorry about was that I had had no adventures…I always wondered how it was that Robert Stevenson always seemed to have adventures; why don’t I have adventures?

There is a parallel there with Foreign Faces in which Pritchett criss-crosses communist countries in eastern Europe, returns to Madrid and Seville and then goes farther afield to Turkey and Iran.  The essays are similarly marked by an absence of ‘adventure’ even though they are no less entertaining for it.

Pritchett’s essays on eastern Europe capture those places at a crucial time in the post war period between the 1956 revolution in Hungary and protests in Poland and the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  His essays are not political but reveal the variety in the countries and the differences in society, culture and character.

Sociable and curious he brings the places to life through the characters he meets.  Some of his more general comments can appear blunt or actually offensive (“Romania annoys from the beginning“), but they often serve simply to grab attention.  His essays are full of sharp observation and Pritchett gets to his point with an informal but incisive and clear style.  Although he may not spare them from his pen, Pritchett writes about people and places with humour and generosity and without being a snob.  This is particularly evident in the essay on Madrid when it is clear that he is writing with affection rather than meanness.  

The result is a charming and witty collection of essays and not at all offensive.

Foreign Faces is currently available on Amazon for Kindle for only £3.99.