“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” Joseph Conrad, Preface to The Nigger of The Narcissus
The life and work of Joseph Conrad, it seems, was a huge influence on Gavin Young.
If the quote above inspired Gavin Young’s journalism and writing, the following quote from Conrad’s short story, Youth inspired Young’s desire to live, travel and to see the world:
I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth and all men; the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, too soon, too soon – before life itself.
At the outset of In Search of Conrad, Young recalls that passage being read aloud to him during his school days and being intoxicated by this stirring summons “to wake up and start living”. Gavin Young did just that.
After a period of national service following the Second World War, Young started working for a firm of ship brokers in Iraq. It was while he was there that he met explorer Wilfred Thesiger, with whose encouragement he visited Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and subsequently spent two years living with them. In a letter to his mother Thesiger commented:
Gavin Young who works with a firm in Basra and is keen to see something of Arab tribal life has been with me for a week … He is a nice lad and I am always glad to help anyone who is keen on this sort of life.
An encounter with Wilfred Thesiger was not the only thing Young had in common with Eric Newby, another famous post-war travel writer.
Young was steered towards journalism by Ian Fleming when they met in a bar in Tangiers in the 1950s. Turning down an offer from Fleming to join The Sunday Times, Young joined the Observer at the end of the 1950s, as had Newby and spent the next 30 years covering wars and revolutions in Angola, Nagaland, Cambodia, Iran and Yemen as well as enjoying spells as the newspaper’s correspondent in New York and Paris.
His subsequent travel books, Slow Boats to China (a journey by 23 vessels from Greece to China) and Slow Boats Home (his return to England by boat via the South Seas, Cape Horn and West Africa) were better received but is was with In Search of Conrad that Young was, in 1991, awarded the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award (later becoming the Dolman Best Travel Book Award and then the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year).
As its title suggests, In Search of Conrad is a literary pilgrimage. In this engrossing book, Young talks of his lifelong obsession with Conrad’s books and his literary quest to seek out the world and characters which inhabit Conrad’s novels Almayer’s Folly and Lord Jim; the men who:
have tinged with romance the region of shallow waters and forest-clad islands that life far east and still mysterious between the deep waters of two oceans.
Young explains how Conrad was a reader first (“I don’t know what would have become of me if I had not been [a reading boy]”), before he became a traveller and seaman and then settled in England after 20 years at sea to pour his experiences into his writing.
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there. Marlow in The Heart of Darkness
He follows Conrad’s journeys to the East in search of the places he visited and looking for clues about the stories and adventurers who inspired both characters and plots in his novels.
Young’s quest takes him on journeys across the Java Sea, through the Gulf of Siam, and to the Makassar Straits visiting Bangka, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), Celebes (now Sulawesi), Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. It is a fascinating journey not only for its literary investigation but for the places Young visits including some still remote places which only now, through the advent of budget airlines in Southeast Asia, are becoming more accessible to travellers.
Young’s own enthusiasm for Conrad’s books, history and travel is infectious and it was easy to feel drawn into his quest. Relying on Norman Sherry’s (Graham green’s biographer) as well as his own investigations Young brings enigmatic characters from Conrad’s novel into sharper focus with biographical detail and historical description of 19th century life in Southeast Asia.
Young effortlessly blends his own travelogue and descriptions of the East with Conrad’s own, slipping between Conrad’s time and his own. Pre-empting any charge of plagiarism, Young calls it a collaboration. It is effective and lends parts of the book a dreamlike quality.
For readers who have been inspired to visit places to experience what they have read on the page, or for anyone with an interest in less visited places Southeast Asia, this is an excellent read.
Young’s other books include Worlds Apart, a collection of essays and journalism, From Sea to Shining Sea, about America, A Wavering Grace, about Vietnam and Beyond Lion Rock, the story of Cathay Pacific Airways. Gavin Young died in 2001.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time.
Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.
Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.
He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world. He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him. Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911. Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword tothat book:
Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper. He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made. Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.
The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:
Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.
After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone. He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service: Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921).
Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina. His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.
Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family). Franck died in 1962.
All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books. Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.
Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey.
There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths. He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today. He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927.
Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.
However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently. Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment. Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).
While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:
The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing.
Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:
You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”
When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today. Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:
prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.
Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:
That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.
All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be. It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:
Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.
All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy. For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.
Camus’s quote is more about being outside the comfort zone of our normal daily lives than a prescription to embark on dangerous adventures to incite a state of anxiety.
Explaining that adherence to routine can lessen our capacity for happiness, travel plays a valuable role in breaking that routine:
Without cafés and newspapers, it would be difficult to travel. A paper printed in our own language, a place to rub shoulders with others in the evenings enable us to imitate the familiar gestures of the man we were at home, who, seen from a distance, seems so much a stranger. For what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat — hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone). I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.” Travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves. But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value. A woman dancing without a thought in her head, a bottle on a table, glimpsed behind a curtain: each image becomes a symbol. The whole of life seems reflected in it, insofar as it summarizes our own life at the moment. When we are aware of every gift, the contradictory intoxications we can enjoy (including that of lucidity) are indescribable.
Camus expressed a similar idea in his notebooks:
What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.
Rather than happiness, therefore, Camus tells us it is awareness we should wish for.
As Maria Popova puts it, “Camus considers how the trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness” and travel can bring us out of that trance.
While we should not waste time, simply filling time or being busy is not the same as not wasting it “if in doing so one loses oneself.”
Therefore while travel can help heighten awareness, it is important to think about how we travel and whether we are simply filling time and losing ourselves, if we want to reap its full benefit.
It is intersting to note that when travelling and being stripped of all that is familiar, we are likely to fel ‘soul-sick’ and that travel is an experience which can bring ‘contradictory intoxications’.
Those interested in Camus’ writing on place should seek out his Algerian Chronicles. While more a collection of reportage and political pieces than a traditional work of travel writing, Algerian Chronicles explores an exile’s relationship with the country of his birth as it undergoes a period of crisis.
Algerian Chronicles is a selection of Camus’ journalism about Algeria written over 20 years from 1939 “when almost no one in France was interested in the country, to 1958, when everyone is talking about it.”
It was compiled and published in 1958 in response to the Algerian War at a time when Camus felt desparate about the country’s future and was torn between two positions:
These texts summarize the position of a man who, having confronted the Algerian plight from the time he was very young, tried in vain to sound the alarm and who, being long aware of France’s responsibility in the matter, could not approve of either a conservative or an oppressive policy – from Camus’s Preface to Algerian Chronicles.
The Mediterranean separates two worlds in me, one where memories and names are preserved in measured spaces, the other where the wind and sand erases [sic] all trace of men on the open ranges.
The first section of Algerian Chronicles explores the economic causes of the crisis through articles written in 1939 describing the famine in Algeria’s Kabylia region. Their publication led to Camus’ first exile as he was forced to look for work outside of Algeria (although he soon returned).
The other pieces were written from the perspective of an outsider, albeit one intimately familiar with the country, or at least from the the perspective of someone caught between two places, and examine the development of the crisis, assess its (then) current state and propose a possible solution.
“What a misfortune is the one of a man without a city.” “Oh make it so that I will not be without a city,” the choir said [in Medea]. I am without a city. —Albert Camus, Notebooks, 1951–1959 (quoted in Claire Messud’s review for NYRB)
The New York Times‘ review of Algerian Chronicles is available here, Jermey Harding’s review for The London Review of Books is here and The LA Review of Books‘ review is here.
Thanks to a caffeine break atKioskafenear 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 asthis piece about Copenhagen by Laura Harkerin 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’smost recent Papertrail interviewwas with Elsewhere co-founder Paul Scraton who selected three books about places. I settled in an ordered another coffee.
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 ishereand The NY Times‘ review ishere.
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. AsThe New Yorkerput 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 reviewhereand The Observer‘s reviewhere. 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 foundhere, or on iTunes.
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.
Calles 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.
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.
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:
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 challengeandThe Office #microadventurevideos, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why is it that road trips, when undertaken by men in literature, seem to be about expanding one’s life and its context, about seeing the bigger world and how the man fits into it, and yet when undertaken by women, are most often in flight from dangerous situations, and seldom, if ever, for pure adventure?
Murphy recognises that books can provide role models to help us understand our own choices and motivations but, when planning her own road trip, wondered at the relative lack of female literary road trip role models.
Riding a motorcycle for hours on end, days at a time will disorient you in a way that opens up new vistas. That’s what I was counting on.
In the course of the article, Murphy provides a good list of adventurous female authors who took to the road and wrote about their experiences. The comments section at the end of the article provides a few more suggestions.
Murphy has added to the list of female adventurer/writers with an account of her own 5,000 mile bike trip, Harley and Me.
That trip dilated my perception of myself, of this country, of my place in the world. In a very real and sometimes brutal way, the experience of being out in the elements day after day, enduring long and arduous miles along the nation’s roads took me apart, piece by piece—and then rebuilt me.
In addition to the titles by female authors that Murphy recommends there are, of course, others by female authors that celebrate travel and adventure.
As well as famous examples like Gertrude Bell, Dervla Murphy and Freya Stark, there are also Emily Hahn, who wrote about driving across the US and some of her many other travels in the memoir No Hurry to Get Home, Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight Through France and In Morocco, the aptly named Aloha Wanderwell Baker who drove around the world in the 1920s and also Ella Maillart who, as well as keeping pace with Peter Fleming in Forbidden Journey, wrote about her road trip from Geneva to Kabul with Annemarie Schwarzenbach in The Cruel Way. More recent examples include Robyn Davidson and Kira Salak.
Murphy has a good point about women being underrepresented in travel literature in proportion to the journeys they have made when compared to their male counterparts.
Even when they make the same journeys, the female perspective can be overshadowed by the male. The Maillart/Fleming journey provides one example and Barbara Greene’s account of her African journey with her more famous cousin, Graham, another. Many have heard of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, but Barbara Greene’sexcellent Too Late to Turn Back is less well known.
However, that ought not to detract from the many fine travel narratives written by adventurous females who have undertaken journeys many others would not dare and continue to inspire those with sufficiently adventurous spirits to follow in their tracks.
What other female travel writers would you recommend?
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.
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.
Overripeness is…the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past. To touch the past with one’s hands is realized only in dreams; and in Morocco the dream-feeling envelops one at every step.
Edith Wharton, novelist and friend of author Henry James, came late to her writing career but was a traveller from an early age, prompting her to comment in later life “perhaps, after all, it is not a bad thing to begin one’s travels at four.”
Wharton was born into a wealthy family in 1862. Following the American Civil War, her family moved to Europe, travelling between France, Spain and Italy before returning to New York when the Franco-Prussian war broke out.
Wharton later married a wealthy Boston banker in 1885 with whom she travelled around Europe for several months each year. At the end of the 19th century, the Whartons’ travels focused on Italy but switched to France in the early part of the 20th century. Their travels included a four-month yacht cruise on the Aegean in 1888 which Wharton wrote about in The Cruise of the Vanadis.
It was only in her 40s that Wharton turned seriously to writing after the publication of her first successful novel The House of Mirth. In addition to fiction, Wharton wrote seven travel books. After her separation and divorce, Wharton moved to France where lived until her death in 1937.
In her introduction to Edith Wharton Abroad, a collection of Wharton’s travel writing, Sarah Bird Wright notes that Wharton’s travel writing is shaped not only by her extensive reading and learning but also a “dislike of architectural restoration” and a “preference for “parentheses” of travel instead of the “catalogued riches of guidebooks””. She also observes that, like William Dean Howells, Wharton was a traveller before she was a writer.
Relatively late in her travelling career, in 1917 and while Europe was still engulfed by the First World War, Edith Wharton toured Morocco by car at a pivotal moment in that country’s history:
the brief moment of transition between its virtually complete subjection to European authority, and the fast approaching hour when it is thrown open to all the banalities and promiscuities of modern travel.
Overshadowing In Morocco is the sense that Wharton is glimpsing a country that is changing and disappearing. Wharton sees that a combination of French improvement to Morocco’s railways and roads together with the resumption of normal Mediterranean passenger traffic after the war will open Morocco up to “the great torrent of ‘tourism'” and all the “banalities and promiscuities ofmodern travel”.
Starting her journey in Tangier, Wharton is keen to get away from the familiar “dog-eared world of travel” she finds there and instead immerse herself in the souks and harems of old Morocco.
Wharton visits Rabat and Sale, Volubilis (the only sizeable Roman ruins so far discovered in Morocco) and also Meknes, where she recalls the reign of Sultan Moulay-Ismael whose architectural achievements are overshadowed by his use of slaves in their construction among whom were Christians captured by Barbary pirates.
Wharton moves on to “many-walled Fez” where she vividly describes the descent through its souk to the tomb of the city’s founder, Moulay-Idriss and the Almohad mosque of El Kairouiyin.
Wharton describes the markets and souks of Fez and Marrakech and also the Djemaa el- Fna with its storytellers, snake-charmers and dancers, concluding that there “can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara.”
Wharton also describes visits to Moulay Idriss, where she witnesses a blood rite dance, as well as the Saadian tombs in Marrakech, both places firmly on modern travellers’ itineraries but to which foreigners then had only recently been permitted access.
Wharton portrays Morocco as a country of constant change, instability and even as a shifting concept. She describes the flows of Almoravid, Almohad, Saadian, Merinid or Hassanian invaders as they wash across the country, each leaving their mark on Morocco’s architecture and history.
With shifts in power Wharton notes the shifting borders or areas of control, in a region bounded by the Giralda tower in Seville to the Koutoubya tower in Marrakech and beyond the desert to interior Africa.
Wharton also describes the abandoned and decaying buildings which, made of plaster and rubble, “do not die in beauty like the firm stones of Rome”:
Everywhere behind the bristling walls and rock-clamped towers of old Morocco lurks the shadowy spirit of instability. Every new Sultan builds himself a new house and lets his predecessors’ palaces fall into decay;and as with the Sultan so with his vassals and officials. Change is the rule in this apparently unchanged civilization, where “nought may abide but Mutability.“
Wharton clearly views the French and, in particular, General Lyautey’s governorship of Morocco as enlightened and perhaps, underlining a departure from the past, as permanent and stable. In one sense then, although the French represent another wave of invaders to have crossed the desert and administer Morocco, their coming marks a change from the normal pattern and the arrival of modernity.
No more will the invading or controlling power knock down and rebuild. No more will Morocco’s old buildings fall into ruin. New buildings are to be constructed outside of the old towns and Wharton praises the “incessant efforts of General Lyautey’s administration to preserve the old monuments of Morocco from injury, and her native arts and industries from the corruption of European bad taste.”
Conscious that she is visiting a guidebook-less country, Wharton adds to her personal impressions, outlines of the country’s history and architecture. Modestly, she claims that the chief merit of these outlines is their absence of originality, having drawn their content from other works that she lists. She also devotes a chapter to describing her experiences of harems in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech.
Although, in her original preface of 1919, Wharton expresses concern at the prospect of increased tourism to Morocco, in the preface to a new edition in 1927, Wharton is pleased to note that Morocco has retained “nearly all the magic and mystery of forbidden days”, despite its popularity as a destination and the improvements to its accessibility and its conveniences, concluding that:
To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.”
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.
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).