Book: Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads (1,276 words)

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
Vintage, 1st published in 1939

Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed. 

Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.  

The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book.  Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey. 

Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.  

img_9839Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.  

Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly.  His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.

The trip had a long gestation period.  Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks.  It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:

The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s.  There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week.  This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!

Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States.  After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.

THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers… The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border – it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it ‘a happy death’.

Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.

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Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”.  That is a considerable understatement.  Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans.  Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects.  He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey.  Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect. 

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From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on.  The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico.  The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.    

The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.

From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.   

He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).

The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.  

Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling: 

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]

Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.  

Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts.  Yet he seems to arrive back where he started.  Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him.  He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.  

Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust.  A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey: 

Motion is life,’ he said, ‘and life is motion. 

For further reading see Kevin Hartnett’s review of The Lawless Roads in The Millions or follow Graeme Woods’ 2009 journey in Greene’s foosteps for The Atlantic magazine:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.

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).