Searching for Conrad in Southeast Asia with Gavin Young

“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.

More than 20 years later when he was in his fifties, Young returned to the Marsh Arabs in Iraq and wrote what was to become his first travel book Return to the Marshes: Life with the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.  

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.  

Read more about Gavin Young’s life and career on Faber & Faber’s blog or in the obituaries from The Observer and The Telegraph.

    

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Andrew Eames on the trail of Agatha Christie

The 8.55 to Baghdad
by Andrew Eames

Published by Corgi (2005)

“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.

Orient express map

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).

Nairn_Transport_Co._luggage_label

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:

 

Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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