Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1929) by Evelyn Waugh

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

Book: Richard Halliburton, The Flying Carpet

The Flying Carpet
by Richard Halliburton

Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (2012); First published 1933

“Wings! With a winged ship, I could still be a vagabond, but a vagabond
with the clouds for my province, as well as the continents.”

Born in 1900 and a graduate of Princeton, Halliburton’s life might have followed a more conventional path were it not for his insatiable desire for excitement and adventure.

Running off to travel in England and France while at Princeton, Halliburton wrote to his father making it clear that he did not intend to return his life to “an even tenor”, writing to his father:

“I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921 and was true to his word.  Idolising youthful heroes such as Byron, TE Lawrence, George Mallory, Rupert Brooke, Halliburton set out to create a life of adventure for himself.  On the strength of his daring, his good looks, journalism and tireless theatrical lecturing, Halliburton became a celebrity with best selling books like Royal Road to Romance and The Glorious Adventure (also available for free, here), recounting his journeys around the world during the 1920s and adhering to his simple philosophy:

Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.

Richard_Halliburton

After losing a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Halliburton had to scrape the money together for his next adventure, flying around the world in a two seater, open cockpit Stearman biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet and wrote about in the eponymous book.

Halliburton could not fly, so enlisted experienced pilot Moye Stephens to fly the plane offering him no wage but unlimited expenses. After shipping the Flying Carpet to England, the pair embarked on a 40,000 mile journey taking in Saharan Africa,, Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia, before putting the Flying Carpet back on a ship to sail for San Francisco. (Read more about the journey here and here.)

HighFlight-Halliburton4

Their trip was daring and pioneering.  Lindbergh had only made his solo flight across the Atlantic a few years earlier.  They had no support. Shell Oil had kindly given them the location of an oil tank in the Sahara at which they could refuel although finding it meant following tyre tracks across the desert.  The journey had plenty of romance; they met maharajahs and took princes and princesses up in the Flying Carpet in Iraq and Persia.  They met a stranded German aviatrix, Elly Beinhorn who joined them, swapped the Flying Carpet’s wheels for floats in south east Asia and met headhunters in Borneo. They flew past the Taj Mahal and took the first aerial photos of Mount Everest and gave aerobatic displays on their way round.  

moyeandrichard

It is a dizzying journey and Halliburton’s breathless style matches it. By the fourth page they have crossed America, sailed across the Atlantic and have flown south from England across France and Spain to Gibraltar.   It is apparent that they landed and visited many more places than are described, places like Rangoon barely registering a mention.  It was only four years since Lindbergh had become the first person ever to be in New York one day and in Paris on the next; this was a new way of seeing the old world just before it changed.  It is hard not to feel Halliburton’s excitement and be swept along by his enthusiasm.  

Halliburton is no poet like that other famous flying writer, Antoine St Exupery and his style is not necessarily fashionable.  Susan Sontag noted in her 2001 essay Homage to Halliburton (published in her 2002 collection, Where the Stress Falls):

Enthusiasm for travel may not be expressed so giddily today, but I’m sure that the seeking of what is strange or beautiful, or both, remains just as pleasurable and addictive

For Sontag, Halliburton’s books were some of the most important of her life, fusing the idea of being a traveller and a writer as she recalled how his books,

described for me an idea of pure happiness.  And of successful volition.  You have something in mind.  You imagine it. You prepare for it. You voyage toward it. Then you see it. And there is no disappointment; indeed, it may even be more captivating than you imagined. 

Like many of his youthful heroes, Halliburton died young.  He had embarked on another adventure in March 1939, sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean.  He went missing and was pronounced dead in October of that year.

Although not written in a literary style, Tahir Shah points out in his foreword that “great travel writing is all about evoking an atmosphere of adventure” and Halliburton certainly does that with his undiminished enthusiasm for seeking the world’s wonders and conveying his genuine delight at what he is doing.