Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is one of those books which you know of and have an idea of what they are about but then never quite get around to reading. Then, when you do, you wonder why it took you so long.
Tracks is Davidson’s account of her 2,700 kilometre, 9 month solo journey across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. Although raised on a cattle farm from the age of four, Davidson had few practical skills which would assist her and so she spent two years, including doing a dummy run of 300km before attempting her longer 1977 journey.
I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit. That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one’s weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.
I’ve seen Tracks on the shelves in bookshops and referred to in the lists of best or favourite travel books but, if I’m honest, hadn’t paid it too much attention until I recently came across a video on Deskbound Traveller, the site of Michael Kerr, journalist with The Daily Telegraph.
The video is a TEdX video of Rick Smolan, the National Geographic photographer assigned to photograph Davidson’s journey which he did by periodically locating her along her route. He would then spend a few days with her before leaving, not knowing whether she would be alive the next time he came to look.
Rick Smolan’s talk is an unassuming yet jaw dropping insight to a quite extraordinary journey and watching this video has ensured that Tracks is now firmly on my ever-growing to read list. A separate book of Ricka Molan’s photographs is also available:
Smolan’s TEDX talk seems to be a re-run of a better edited version with more imagery available on National Geographic‘s website and also on Youtube:
Throughout the trip I kept saying to Robyn you need to keep a journal because someday you’re going to want to write a book about this and she said why do you have to turn everything into a product like why can’t you just experienced things and not always be filtering it and recording it and documenting it like you’re never there because you’re always outside looking in at it so when she called me and said she written a book I was like you’re kidding me…
Despite initial reluctance, Robyn obviously went on to write about her journey. A National Geographic article appeared in 1978 and the book followed in 1980, published by Jonathan Cape. Tracks was awarded the first Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980. It is in good company as the list of subsequent winners of that award (it has been the Dolman Best Travel Book Award since 2006) reads like a who’s who of travel writing from the last 40 years.
In the course of writing Tracks, Davidson became friends with Doris Lessing and, according to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography, also with travel writer Bruce Chatwin, who introduced Davidson to Salman Rushdie, an encounter which resulted in Rushdie leaving his wife for the woman Chatwin called “my friend the ‘camel lady'”.
There are videos available online with Robyn Davidson talking about her experience which are worth watching. Davidson has interesting observations on the objectification of her trip by others as well as nomadic culture and, in this interview, tips on how to work with camels:
MIKE SMITH: What would you give to the audience as Robyn’s three tips on how to work camels?
ROBYN DAVIDSON: Watch the camel day and night, watch its behaviour and learn how it works. The first thing is just watch them endlessly. Adore them, but never let them take an inch or they will take a mile. And don’t be afraid to beat the hell out of them.
Robyn Davidson has written other travel books, including a book of essays, Travelling Light, Desert Places, about nomadic cultures and an anthology of travel writing published by Picador, Journeys.
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 Medicine, Fantastic 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.
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 containfunny 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)
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.
Each day I must wake, and I must walk. I must find a place to sleep before the sun drops past my right shoulder. These are the unbreachable rules of engagement but beyond that everything every moment of every day is a mystery. It must be. To know too much would be to break the spell.
This article from Wanderlust magazine is about a 1,000 mile walk from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aquaba at the southern end of Jordan that Leon McCarron began in November 2015. After his walking partner, Dave Cornthwaite, suffered a stress fracture shortly before Christmas, McCarron continued the walk solo. Their aim was simply to walk through the heart of the Middle East and report back with a narrative different to that normally found in the mainstream media.
Crossing mountains, valleys. wadis, canyons and deserts they passed through the Jordan Valley, Jericho, the Roman ruins at Umm Qais, Amman, Petra, Wadi Rum and some truly beautiful and desolate landscapes. Travelling by foot enabled them to move slowly and to meet people on their way. Their encounters allowed them to learn about the fig industry, share tea with shepherds, and brought them hospitality in many forms including from the Iraq al-Amir woman’s co-operative society. As a result McCarron is able to report:
the world is a good place. People everywhere are just that, they are people. They share the same hopes and dreams and fears.The love their families and they work hard to survive. This part of the world is no different, despite what we might be led to believe.
To begin with, both contain photographs of the stunning scenery through which they walked and the people they met. The website journal and Instagram commentary also go into much more detail about the reasons for the trip, the people they meet along the way, the hardships they experienced and also convey the journey’s satisfactions.
McCarron also writes about his personal motivation and fascination for harsh landscapes. In particular, how reading Shackleton’s South gave him a taste for adventure, Thesiger’s Across the Empty Quarter inspired his own journey to the Rub al Khali and how TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, echoes in his mind as he walks the deserts of Wadi Rum. From fantasising about far away inhospitable places from his “bedroom in green, rainy hills of Northern Ireland”, to undertaking adventures in Arabia, Iran and the deserts of Jordan, McCarron exemplifies TE Lawrence’s quote about day-dreaming:
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
So why suffer the pain, carry a 20 kilo backpack, clamber in and out of wadis, brave thirst and cold, cope with self-enforced minimalism and endure the absence of any human contact for days on end?
McCarron explains that it is necessary if we are to understand the world. Tempting as it is when we live in a globalised digitised society, he warns that we must not be be drawn into thinking that the world is small. McCarron has travelled slowly on foot and by bike across enough of it to know that it is not and that there is no substitute for travelling in person. His journal is a call to get out and experience the world in all its vastness, to move slowly across its surface paying attention to its changes and variety and to meet and speak to the people who live there. After all:
the riches of our planet are far too great to be reduced to the contents of a reporter’s dispatch (then skim-read by tired commuters through a 4-inch screen.)
After arriving in Aqaba, Leon McCarron crossed to Sinai and is continuing his journey in Egypt. As for me, although he is offline at the moment, I look forward to picking up his journey on Instagram when the feed starts again and so will make do continuing this journey through a 4-inch screen…
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)
We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were inﬁnitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.
In hisNYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).
Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight. In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying.Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen.
St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying. He expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”). Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:
The aeroplane is a means, not an end. It is not for the plane that we risk our lives. Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs. But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.
The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living. In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.
He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight. Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazineobserves that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.” The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed. Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous. The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.
Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger. There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.
Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.
St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays. Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).
Some men stay closeted in their title shops. Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.
Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life. Its message is not that to live we must fly. It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning:
When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.
It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:
What saves a man is to take a step. And another step. It’s that same first step repeated.
All the earth is seamed with roads, and all the sea is furrowed with the tracks of ships, and over all the roads and all the waters a continuous stream of people passes up and down travelling, as they say, for their pleasure. What is it, I wonder, that they go out for to see?
Throughout an impressive career that encompassed writing, travelling, political administration and diplomacy, archaeology and espionage, Gertrude Bell travelled extensively throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia.
Bell’s traveling career divides roughly into three periods – tourist, student and scholarly/political. This trip falls within the first, some time before the most famous part of her career when she was helping to shape British policy in the Middle East and Iraq as a contemporary of TE Lawrence.
Bell made this journey to Persia in her mid-20s following her studies at Oxford. Her uncle, Sir Franck Lascelles, had recently been appointed British minister in Tehran and Bell accompanied her aunt to visit him in 1892.
After this trip to Persia, Bell’s focus shifted to the Arab world and later to what became the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in the period following the First World War.
The basis of Persian Pictures were the letters that Bell sent home during her trip. The book was originally published anonymously and was not published again and under Bell’s name until 1928, two years after her death.
Persian Pictures is, as expected, a series of sketches each covering different topics.
Tehran street life is described in rich detail with wry observations and her thoughts about the bazaar could be true of many others (“though little of really beautiful or precious is to be found, the thronging of Oriental life is in itself an endless source of delight“).
There is a visit to a Persian princess, camping with nomads in wild mountains, an inspection of the dazzling jewel laden objects in the Shah’s treasury and also a rest stop at a caravanserai on a journey to the Caspian Sea, where the loaves of bread for sale were thin flaps and resembled “flour mixed in equal parts with sand and fashioned into the semblance of brown paper”. Bell and her companions are invited to join a stranger for lunch and so are spared the unappetising bread and ride away having experienced the hospitality and courtesy of the East.
In another episode, spending the night on a stranger’s floor Bell describes the traveller’s delight of sleeping in unexpected places and of experiencing shared humanity in the simple and basic things. Throughout, Bell tries to get beneath the surface to uncover Persia’s secrets and closely observes the characters and manners of the people she meets including at a religious festival and in response to an outbreak of cholera.
Persian Pictures is a short book but full of evocative and tantalising depictions of aspects of a country that has long since changed. Poetic at times, Persian Pictures is rich in quotable descriptive passages and thoughts about the experience of travel, including an excellent section on the art of bargaining with merchants and another about travel companions and the true pleasure and purpose of travel.
Bell is joyful and exuberant in Persian Pictures. Like a rebirth, flowers bloom with just a little water from dead desert landscapes and, from the silent, extinct world of some ancient ruins, overnight rain brings forth the freshness of damp earth and desert flowers in the morning sun (“For us the wide plain and limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of the morning, for us youth and the joy of living!”)
The sketches in Persian Pictures give a very real sense of someone who is in thrall to the intoxicating pleasure of travel and who is being seduced by the sights and sounds of the place they are in despite all the challenges and differences. You know, reading Persian Pictures, that Gertrude Bell will be heading east again as soon as she can.
We cling regretfully to the close, but the beginning is what is worth having the beginning with all its freshness, all its enthusiasm, all its unexpected charm, Hercules for strength, Atlanta for speed, Gabriel for fair promise. Say what you will, the end is sad. Do not linger over the possibilities to which (all unfulfilled) it sets a term, but remember the glorious energy which spurred you forward at first, and which lies ready to spring forth anew.
There is a renewed interest in Bell and her life. This is possibly due to the two wars in Iraq and also the re-shaping of the political landscape in much of the Middle East. In 2015, Werner Herzog’s biopic of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson was released and Bell has also been the subject of several biographies in recent years:
“She used to come here to do her shopping. And to get her hair done. From Nineveh. With Max.”
It was this nugget about Agatha Christie, made to Andrew Eames while he was visiting Aleppo, that led him on his literary journey to find out what Agatha Christie was doing in the Middle East and to retrace her steps and to declare:
I had no idea that this doyenne of the drawing-room mystery had first traveled out to Iraq, alone, by train, as a thirty-something single mother. And that thereafter she’d spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh’s wives with their constipation.
The result is this book which mixes part travelogue, part history and part biography.
Eames sets out from London to retrace Agatha Christie’s journey. He travels on the Orient Express across Europe from London to Venice. He continues by train through the Balkans, across Turkey and through Syria to Damascus where the train line ends.
The onward journey to Baghdad in Christie’s day and when Eames repeated the journey was by bus across the desert. This was the only way to avoid the time consuming trip through the Suez canal and around the Arabian peninsula.
When Christie made the journey, she travelled by ‘Nairn bus’ named after the New Zealand Nairn brothers who stayed on in the Middle East after the First World War to form a successful company that revolutionised transport between Damascus and Baghdad for 30 years. By the time Christie made the journey, the cross desert service had only been running for a few years and had reduced the journey time to just 20 hours (for more on the Nairn brothers and their company see here and here).
Eames then continues on to Iraq’s archaeological sites and eventually to Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Max Mallowan.
If, like me, you know little of Agatha Christie’s life, this book is an interesting introduction to certain aspects of it,and particularly her divorce and second marriage. Eames succeeds in re-creating an aura of by gone travel and those aspects will appeal to anyone with an interest in travel between the wars. He is a pleasant enough travelling companion bringing his travelling companions and the places he visits to life with a wry sense of humour. He characterises his adventure as a journey back to sources; the source of Christie’s second marriage and from modern Europe to Ur, the site of one of the earliest known cities and to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Reading this book not only reminds us how much as changed since Agatha Christie made her journey. It is also a reminder of how much has changed since Eames made his journey and how quickly those changes can take place. At the end of his book he realises that his “interest in Agatha and her crips pieces of fiction had finally been overhauled by a far bigger story”, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which began three months after his trip ended. His sadness at recalling Lt Col Tim Collins’ entreaty to his troops to “tread lightly” is now compounded by the knowledge that other places in his adventure, Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra, have now also been ravaged by conflict.
Sadly, it is commonplace to read travel books and reflect on how travel to the place has changed since they were written, perhaps because of political changes or dangers; it is a truism of travel that as some places become safe to visit others become less so. But it is particularly tragic when these changes involve such loss of life and the wanton destruction of sites which have survived the centuries.
Read reviews of The 8.55 to Baghdad from the Independent, here, the Telegraph, here and the Chicago Tribune, here.
One of the UK’s top travel writers, Andrew Eames website is here. It contains links to some of his published work. Its sections ‘blog’ and ‘mags and rags’ also give an insight into the life of a travel writer and some interesting reflections on the publishing industry.
Agatha Christie’s own accounts of her travels in Syria and Iraq were published as Come Tell Me How You Live and earlier volume of travel writing about her travels to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as part of the British trade mission for the 1924 Empire Exhibition was published as The Grand Tour:
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter HopkirkJohn Murray
Among the oasis dwellers of the Taklamakan, strange legends of ancient towns lying buried beneath the sands had been passed down from grandfather to grandson for as long as anyone could remember.
Peter Hopkirk wrote several books about Central Asia, focussing on what Richard Bernstein of the New York Times called “the confrontation of Eastern exoticism with Western Imperial ambition” and has “made a career out of the historical adventures of Europeans in Central and South Asia.”
Hopkirk passed away last year, age 83, and in its obituary (reproduced on theMarlburian Club website), The Times newspaper paid tribute by noting that “Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories.” So, even though Foreign Devils is strictly more history than travel it nonetheless deserves inclusion; Hopkirk travelled widely in the regions about which he writes and brings the tales to life using contemporary travel narratives.
Foreign Devils was published in 1980 and was the first of Hopkirk’s six books about Central Asia. It recounts the explorations and adventures of British, Swedish German, French, American and Japanese archaeologists in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang province in modern China) at the end of the 19th and first part of the 20th century.
These archaeologists were searching for the cities, monasteries, grottos and stupas which had grown up along the Silk Road during its first 800 or so years from the time of the Han dynasty. An immense network of trade routes stretching thousands of miles between the Mediterranean and China along which precious goods such as silk, gold and ivory were carried, the Silk Road gave birth to many oasis towns. Ideas, as well as goods were carried along the Silk Road, including Buddhism which spread along the trade routes from North West India, over the mountain passes and into Central Asia where it flourished and with it, art and learning.
However, as trade along the Silk Road declined, so too did its oasis cities and over the years, they fell into obscurity and ruin.
Their imagination fired by the accounts of Chinese travellers such as Fu-Hsien in the 5th century and 7th century monk Hsuan-tsang, these predominantly European archaeologists and explorers set off to re-discover cities which had been lost for centuries and lay buried in Central Asia’s desert sands. Hopkirk traces the passions, obsessions and adventures adventures of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Von Le Coq, Paul Pelliott, Langdon Lownes and Japan’s Count Otani as they set out at great personal risk and raced one another to redicover hidden Buddhist cities.
The focus of their efforts was the vast Taklamakan desert which Sven Hedin called “the worst and most dangerous desert in the world” and access to which access is restricted on three sides by mountains (Tian Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and the Karakoram and Kun Lun to the south) and by the Lop and Gobi deserts on the fourth.
In an engaging, exciting and interesting read, Hopkirk tells of the treasures that they found and how literally tonnes of manuscripts, frescoes and statues were removed before the Chinese authorities finally put a stop to the removal of antiquities.
This books is the perfect introduction to a remote and difficult to visit area and Hopkirk includes general introductions to the Silk Road and the cities of the Taklamakan; which is useful, if like me, you have no previous knowledge and the region is a bit of a blank on the map. This book brings the region to life.
Foreign Devils left me longing to drop everything and head straight out of the door in Hopkirk’s footsteps to see the region for myself and wanting to read more about the area and its history. Fortunately, many of the first hand accounts on which Hopkirk’s book is based are available online for free in a variety of formats, for example, those by Sven Hedin (Through Asia, volume 1andvolume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).
First Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005
The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface. Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial. No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned. Surviving footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world. Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest. Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt. Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company Within months of different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.
Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)
“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is he courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”
In his preface, Swedish born journalist, Sven Lindqvist, sums up Exterminate All the Brutes, by stating:
“This is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man traveling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination. In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in one sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.””
In his 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote speech, Lindqvist says that his career in reportage started “with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother” which, when he was a boy, he saved from one of his mother’s periodic clear outs. The book was a diary by Swedish missionary Edward Sjöblom who travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1892 and travelled by boat up the Congo searching for a suitable spot to found a mission.
The graphic and horrific descriptions in Sjöblom’s diary of the treatment meted out to locals by colonists had a profound effect on Lindqvist (the diary “with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events”). Lindqvist wanted to become like Sjöblom: “[n]ot a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it. I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.”
Lindqvist expands this story in Exterminate All the Brutes. The book’s central idea is that we forget uncomfortable truths:“the Germans have been made sole scapegoats of extermination that are actually a common European heritage” the reason being that “[w]e do not want to remember. We want genocide to have begun and ended with nazism. That is what is most comforting.”
In a Guardian profile on Lindqvist, Stuart Jeffries writes that Exterminate All the Brutes“is extraordinary for not being straightforward historical text but travel diary. [Lindqvist] wrote it while crossing the Sahara on buses and, at the same time, journeying through the history of extermination.”
Lindqvist sets out to the “desert of deserts” in Africa “carrying under one arm the core of European thought stored on an old fashioned computer”. In what Richard Gott called“an ingeniously researched exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as a travel book though time and space”, Lindqvist disappears into this desert in an attempt to create the time and distance he needs to explore and understand the material he has collected but never has the time to go through to and which Lindqvist asserts “simply tells the truth we prefer to forget.”
As Richard Gott says, Lindqvist is “not really a “travel writer” in the usual sense, but he uses the experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration of problems that are often a good deal nearer home.” (Gott and Lindqvist originally met in Bolivia in 1967 on the trail of Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign and have been friends since.)
Lindqvist’s is burdened on his journey by the physical weight of his pack and laptop which could easily be a metaphor for the wright of the knowledge he is carrying in it. Fear overshadows his journey:
Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling? Perhaps in fear we seek an increased perception of life, a more potent form of existence? I am frightened, therefore I exist. The more frightened I am, the more I exist.”
At times, this is the normal fear of a traveler setting out on a journey, a sensation soon to be replaced by elation (“I am frightened as usual. But when departure finally cannot be postponed any longer, as I stand there at dawn with my heavy pack, crouching before the leap – then I am again elated at being where I am”) or it is the fear of a physical danger – being buried in the sand (“Everything is covered with sand, my sleeping bag, my notebook, my suitcase, even my body. My eyelids are lie sandpaper against my eyeballs. The air is too thick to breathe”) or suffering from the heat.
These fears, however, could just as easily be fear of teetering on the edge of the conclusions he will draw from his understanding of the material he carries, knowing that he cannot then un-know them. Or they could be the claustrophobia he experiences from immersing himself so completely in the material or a fear of being buried under the sheer weight of the many textual references.
The travelogue makes up a small proportion of the overall text, but the fragments shine through his description of the history of extermination. And, although his prose is as sparse as the desert he describes it is no less evocative for it (“You long for trees in the desert, not just for the shade they provide, but also because they stretch up toward space”).
Making his own journey into darkness, after Conrad, Lindqvist traces a line across the blank of the heart of the Sahara. His journey begins in El Golea (almost in the geographical centre of Algeria) and follows an overland route through the desert to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, close to the Nigerian border. Although he does not visit obvious places associated with his subject such as Congo or Sudan, his ultimate goal becomes clear, neatly tying together both journeys with a firing parallel which I won’t spoil.
Lindqvist acknowledged in his Lettre Ulysses lecture, that not everyone agrees with his conclusions, not least the Belgians (“The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial”). However, there is no denying that Lindqvist tells a compelling story in an imaginative manner.
At the time of writing, Exterminate All the Brutes is published by Granta in Saharan Journey alongside Lindqvist’s other desert travelogue, Desert Divers.