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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: RL Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes

by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Travels with a Donkey is available as a free ebook from the Internet Archive and also Project Gutenburg

Book: Edith Wharton in Morocco

In Morocco
by Edith Wharton

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.   

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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 of modern travel”.

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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.”  

Some of Wharton’s other travel books (some of which are available to download for free and legally at The Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg) are: 

 

Book: What the Traveller Saw by Eric Newby

What the Traveller Saw
by Eric Newby

(Collins, 1989; Flamingo, 1993)
 
Much more important to me than cameras..were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been in a notebook.
 
Eric Newby is one of the most celebrated English travel writers.  Growing up between the wars close to the River Thames in south-west London, Newby was inspired to travel in part by hearing Apsley Cherry-Garrard (one of Scott’s party and the author of The Worst Journey In The World) speak at his school and by a set of books belonging to his father, the Children’s Colour Book of Lands and Peoples.
 

Newby began his travels in 1938 when he joined the crew of a four-masted Finnish barque which was still engaged in the Australian grain trade.

During the Second World War, Newby served in The Black Watch and the Special Boat Service.  On operations with the latter in 1942, he gained his first experience of Europe, landing by dinghy on Sicily where he was captured and sent to a POW camp in the Po valley.
 
He subsequently escaped and during a period of hiding met his wife. He was recaptured and was detained until the end of the war when he returned to Italy and married, Wanda, the girl he had met while in hiding.   He recorded his wartime experiences in Love and War in the Apennines, published in 1971.
 
Following the war, Newby embarked on careers in the fashion industry (in his father’s business and with John Lewis) and publishing.  In 1956, his first book, about his experience in the last Grain Race, was published.
 
His most famous book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush was published in 1958.  Evelyn Waugh was sufficiently impressed by Newby’s writing to contribute a preface for no fee.
 
A Short Walk contains what the Telegraph called “the most celebrated meeting between travellers since that of Livingstone and Stanley”, when Newby encountered explorer Wilfred Thesiger.  
Contrasting his own amateurism with that of Thesiger’s professionalism, Newby recalls Thesiger watching him and his companion inflate their camping mattresses, an act prompting Thesiger to comment: “God, you must be a couple of pansies.”
 
In 1963 he travelled the length of the Ganges by boat with his wife, Wanda, his account of which was published in 1966 as Slowly Down the Ganges.
 After that trip, he became travel editor of the Observer, a post he held for 10 years from 1964 to 1973.
 
The chapters in What the Traveller Saw are largely made up of journeys from that period.  However, the book serves as an excellent sampler of those, as well as more famous journeys Newby undertook and which later became books in their own right.
 
The book begins with chapters on his last Grain Race experience and his wartime experiences in Italy.  It also contains a chapter on his journey back to Europe after walking in the Hindu Kush and another on his Ganges journey with Wanda.
 
There is a great deal more to What the Traveller Saw.  Newby, it seems, was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, whether visiting Kenya in the years soon after its independence from Britain or China at a time when it was relatively closed to tourism.
 
Newby was obviously someone who relished travel in all its forms, demonstrated in What the Traveller Saw by the wide range of travel experiences from places evoking the edge of the world (Lisbon, Scilly Isles, Ireland), the desolation of the Australian outback, the dense urbanisation of Japan and Hong Kong and the tropical comfort of Bali and Fiji.
 
His journeys always seem to open up possibilities; more walks and trips for which the present journey permits no time.  His horizons are always expanding, the world becoming larger the more he travels.
 
However he travels, whether by sailing boat, ocean liner, train, canoe, plane or rowing boat Newby is an enthusiastic traveller and always appears to be enjoying himself.
 
Despite his taste for adventurous travel (see for example the chapter on the first descent by a European of the Wakwayowkastic, a tributary of the Moose River in Ontario), Newby is also cheerful visiting places well known to tourism.
 
Although not in thrall to the development of tourist amenities at Petra, he does not allow that to dampen his exhilaration at visiting somewhere he had been inspired to visit reading the Children’s Book of Lands and Peoples at the age of 8:
 

The Siq went on and on, down and down, a journey I wished could be prolonged indefinitely.  Merely to go through it was worth the journey from Amman […] nothing can compare with that first vision of El Khazna, seen as one emerges from the darkness of the Siq.

No matter to Newby that he was not Burckhardt re-discovering Petra, surrounded only by Bedouin.  His good cheer is a good example to bear in mind whenever the temptation to bemoan the presence of other tourists rises.
To Newby’s eye for detail, gentle humour and Englishness, this volume also adds a good selection of Newby’s own photography, a skill he developed while at The Observer.  
In his introduction, Newby notes that many of the photos were taken during that period, which he describes of one of the happiest of his life, noting:
 
As a result, What the Traveller Saw essentially commemorates the past, and, in may cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
It is fitting, therefore, that he ends this collection where it began, in Italy, with a 1988 piece written about Sicily, the place where his European travels began some 45 years previously.
 
Eric Newby died in 2006.  Obituaries giving an overview of his career and life can be found in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Eric Newby appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1982, which can be heard online here, (or using the embedded player below). 



Book: Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures

Persian Pictures
by Gertrude Bell 

(1894, 1928 & in 2014 by I.B. Tauris)

All the earth is seamed with roads, and all the sea is furrowed with the tracks of ships, and over all the roads and all the waters a continuous stream of people passes up and down travelling, as they say, for their pleasure. What is it, I wonder, that they go out for to see?

Throughout an impressive career that encompassed writing, travelling, political administration and diplomacy, archaeology and espionage, Gertrude Bell travelled extensively throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia. 

Bell’s traveling career divides roughly into three periods – tourist, student and scholarly/political.  This trip falls within the first, some time before the most famous part of her career when she was helping to shape British policy in the Middle East and Iraq as a contemporary of TE Lawrence.

Bell made this journey to Persia in her mid-20s following her studies at Oxford.  Her uncle, Sir Franck Lascelles, had recently been appointed British minister in Tehran and Bell accompanied her aunt to visit him in 1892.   

After this trip to Persia, Bell’s focus shifted to the Arab world and later to what became the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in the period following the First World War.

 

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Gertrude Bell in Egypt with Churchill, TE Lawrence and others

The basis of Persian Pictures were the letters that Bell sent home during her trip.  The book was originally published anonymously and was not published again and under Bell’s name until 1928, two years after her death.  

Persian Pictures is, as expected, a series of sketches each covering different topics.

Tehran street life is described in rich detail with wry observations and her thoughts about the bazaar could be true of many others (“though little of really beautiful or precious is to be found, the thronging of Oriental life is in itself an endless source of delight“).

There is a visit to a Persian princess, camping with nomads in wild mountains, an inspection of the dazzling jewel laden objects in the Shah’s treasury and also a rest stop at a caravanserai on a journey to the Caspian Sea, where the loaves of bread for sale were thin flaps and resembled “flour mixed in equal parts with sand and fashioned into the semblance of brown paper”.  Bell and her companions are invited to join a stranger for lunch and so are spared the unappetising bread and ride away having experienced the hospitality and courtesy of the East.

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In another episode, spending the night on a stranger’s floor Bell describes the traveller’s delight of sleeping in unexpected places and of experiencing shared humanity in the simple and basic things.  Throughout, Bell tries to get beneath the surface to uncover Persia’s secrets and closely observes the characters and manners of the people she meets including at a religious festival and in response to an outbreak of cholera.  

Persian Pictures is a short book but full of evocative and tantalising depictions of aspects of a country that has long since changed.  Poetic at times, Persian Pictures is rich in quotable descriptive passages and thoughts about the experience of travel, including an excellent section on the art of bargaining with merchants and another about travel companions and the true pleasure and purpose of travel.  

Bell is joyful and exuberant in Persian Pictures.  Like a rebirth, flowers bloom with just a little water from dead desert landscapes and, from the silent, extinct world of some ancient ruins, overnight rain brings forth the freshness of damp earth and desert flowers in the morning sun (“For us the wide plain and limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of the morning, for us youth and the joy of living!”

The sketches in Persian Pictures give a very real sense of someone who is in thrall to the intoxicating pleasure of travel and who is being seduced by the sights and sounds of the place they are in despite all the challenges and differences.  You know, reading Persian Pictures, that Gertrude Bell will be heading east again as soon as she can. 

We cling regretfully to the close, but the beginning is what is worth having the beginning with all its freshness, all its enthusiasm, all its unexpected charm, Hercules for strength, Atlanta for speed, Gabriel for fair promise. Say what you will, the end is sad. Do not linger over the possibilities to which (all unfulfilled) it sets a term, but remember the glorious energy which spurred you forward at first, and which lies ready to spring forth anew. 
Persian Pictures is available at Gutenberg.org or at the Internet Archive:

There is a renewed interest in Bell and her life. This is possibly due to the two wars in Iraq and also the re-shaping of the political landscape in much of the Middle East.   In 2015, Werner Herzog’s biopic of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson was released and Bell has also been the subject of several biographies in recent years:

Book: Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad, or the new Pilgrims’ Progress
by Mark Twain

Published in 1869

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.

Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s first travel book and also his best-selling book during his life time.   A travel writing classic, it features in Conde Nast Traveler’s 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time and World Hum’s list of 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books.   

The details of the trip are well known.  In 1967, just two years after the end of the American Civil War, Twain joined a group of 60 or so other passengers on a tour of the Mediterranean (“a pleasure excursion” and “picnic on a grand scale”).  The voyage was to be undertaken on the paddle steamship, the Quaker City.  Decommissioned following service in the Civil War, the Quaker City had been refitted “with every necessary comfort” including a library, musical instruments and even a printing press so that the passengers could print their own newsletter.  

Innocents ABroad USS_Quaker_City

The trip lasted about 5 months.  It took a fortnight to reach Gibraltar from the US and Twain reports (not without apprehension at the anticipated boredom) that it would take several weeks to steam back to the US from the Eastern Mediterranean; a long time to spend on a boat about 75 metres in length.   

In the remaining four or less months, the ‘Pilgrims’ packed in an impressive amount, taking in (among other places) Tangiers, Paris, Milan, the Italian lakes, Florence and Rome, the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol (for some Crimea battlefield tourism), Yalta and Odessa before heading to the Holy Land which was the ultimate goal of the trip.  

The only thing more impressive than the number of places visited by the Pilgrims was Twain’s output.  Twain’s $1,250 fare for the voyage was paid by The Daily Alto California.  In return, he sent the San Francisco paper over 50 letters which it published and which later formed the basis of the 600 plus page book Twain wrote after his return in 1868.    

Twain Innocents Abroad

From the outset Twain makes it clear that he is not writing an earnest and reverent travel book, calling it a “record of a pleasure trip” and he proceeds to rail against travellers, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places and also travel writers.

Twain is unsparing of Parisian barbers, tour guides, European use of soap, Turkish baths and, of course, ‘our friends the Bermudians’ as well as a great many other things he encounters.  He professes to be sated by walls of paintings and is sceptical of tourists who express wonder at the Last Supper and instead claims to be more interested in turnpikes, depots and boulevards of uniform houses because he understands them and is not competent to act as a guide to Europe’s art treasures for his readers (“I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”)  Twain’s humour is, for the most part, gentle and aimed at deserving targets.  Only occasionally is he biting or more cruel but his wit is invariably delivered with perfect timing.  

The innocents abroad: or, The new Pilgrim's progress. By Mark Twain. Uniform title: Prospectus Publication info: Hartford, Conn. : American Publishing Co., [1869] Special Collections Copies Material Location PS1312 .A1 1869ca RAREBOOK Special Collections SC-BARR-STThrough his observations and humour, Twain encourages the traveller to look for things which interest him rather than simply those things noted in guidebooks or travel books.  

Twain mocks different traveller types, from the Oracle who bores his fellow travellers with knowledge gleaned from guidebooks and passed off as learned, the Old Travellers who brag and “prate and drivel and lie”, the consummate ass who dresses in local fashion and feigns a foreign accent and the Vandal who inscribes his name on monuments.  He makes fun of their insularity, ignorance and innocence.  While his own innocence may be feigned, Twain also turns his pen on himself, confessing to be variously, a “consummate” and “egregious” ass.

He reserves special mention for travel writers who “heated their fancies and biased their judgment”, turning out “pleasant falsities” either to be popular or to deceive or who slavishly emulate other authors.  Twain is critical of his fellow Pilgrims who ‘smouch’ their opinions about places from those books so that they “will tell of Palestine, when they get home, not as it appeared to them”, but as it appeared to writers of travel books.

Innocents Abroad is therefore an exercise in suggesting to the reader “how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.”   

Although referred as a travel writing classic, in its railing against traveller types, travel pretences, foreigners and foreign places as well as travel writers, Innocents Abroad could in some ways be considered an anti-travel writing classic. With his repeated comparison of foreign sights with the US, Twain also gives the impression of someone who would almost have rather remained at home. Nevertheless, it is clear he is ‘pricking bubbles’ and ‘exploding humbugs’ of travel, not least those who slavishly adhere to guidebooks and express wonder and delight on cue. 

In common with other serialised Nineteenth Century books, at times Innocents Abroad seems a little lengthy, but is almost always enjoyable.  Twain meanders at some points of the Holy Land excursion when recalling his bible history, but even those chapters contain some excellent passages and anecdotes.

Some contemporary reviews of Innocents Abroad are available on line here and include WD Howells’ review for the Atlantic, and also a spoof review written by Twain himself.  

Innocents Abroad is available download for free in a variety of electronic formats at Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive.

If you like the sound of this, you might also be interested in Labels by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

Book: Peter Fleming’s Forgotten Journey

To Peking: A Forgotten Journey from Moscow to Manchuria 
by Peter Fleming

Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (originally published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1952) 

“Well, we’ve been on a journey with Fleming in China, and now we’re real travellers for ever and ever” (WH Auden)

Peter Fleming was older brother of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. 

His travel writing career was short but distinguished and brought him worldwide fame long before Ian had penned the James first Bond book.  The period in which Fleming made his reputation lasted from just 1932 to 1935, while he was in his mid-20s.  In later life, he referred to it as the part of his life he spent  “swanning” around.

Fleming’s “swanning” began after his education at Eton and Oxford, when he travelled to the US to pursue a financial career.  His arrival, just a fortnight before the Wall Street Crash, coupled with an indifference to the world of finance, meant that Fleming seized an opportunity to go to Guatemala.  After that, he abandoned finance and returned to London in 1931 to began a literary career at the Spectator magazine. 

Within a few months, Fleming was off to China on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs to a conference organised by the Institute of Pacific Relations.  Again his timing was inauspicious as the Japanese had just invaded China.  

After returning to London and the Spectator, Fleming’s big break came after he joined an expedition to Brazil to search for Colonel Percy Fawcett.  His travel writing career was born and Brazilian Adventure, a success on publication in 1933, is still in print. 

Fleming’s next journey was another trip to China on behalf of the Times newspaper.  This led to his second book, One’s Company, and although he later described it as “much worse than the first”, it was a success nonetheless.

In 1934 Fleming set off for China for a third time, this time overland via Russia.  This is the trip featured in A Forgotten Journey.

Now reprinted by TPP as To Peking, A Forgotten Journey is Fleming’s diary of his journey from Moscow to Peking between August 1934 and January 1935.  That trip was anterior to his main purpose, a journey overland from China to India (later published as News from Tartary).  As a mere prelude, Fleming’s diary remained unpublished until 1952.  Few alterations have been made to the original text which was published more or less “as it stood”.  Less polished than his other books, it still makes good reading. 

The first part of the book recounts Fleming’s journey from Moscow to the Caucasus to get some shooting with his friends Lord and Lady Gage. (Shooting was one of Fleming’s lifelong passions, as the frequent references in his diary attest. Perhaps fittingly, he was on a grouse shoot when he died in 1971).

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After leaving Lord and Lady Gage at Baku, the second part of the book finds Fleming continuing his journey across the Caspian Sea, through Ashgabad, Samarkand and Tashkent before turning north to join the transiberian railway to Vladivostok.  From there he embarks on a farcical and unsuccessful shooting trip in search of a Siberian tiger. 

Fleming then heads to Manchuria (which had been invaded by the Japanese in 1931) where he meets up with Ella (‘Kini’) Maillart (the Swiss explorer and travel writer) before exploring Manchuria and Jahol and spending Christmas and New year in Shanghai and Peking. 

While not his most highly regarded book, the diary is nevertheless an interesting account of China and travel in the region at a particular period and told with Fleming’s dead pan humour.   

The diary in A Forgotten Journey ends shortly before Maillart and Fleming began their 3,500, 7 month overland journey from Beijing to Kashmir via the Chinese province of Xinjiang in February 1935 (their accounts of that trip were published as News from Tartary (Fleming) and Forbidden Journey (Maillart)).  

Looking back on his ’swanning around’ period, Fleming reflected:

Three years; three interesting, fairly hard journeys. Three books which all fell on their feet.  […] It was all great fun.  The feeling that you had the run of the world.  […]  The chance of leading an almost entirely out of door life. But what good did it do anyone, except me and, I suppose, my publishers.  Perhaps a few sick or lonely people whose lives were made briefly less intolerable by the stuff I wrote.  I should say precious little probably none at all and I’m quite prepared to believe that I would have turned into a more useful citizen if, instead of just ’swanning’ I’d spent my middle twenties studying chartered accountancy or quantity surveying or grassland management but, well, I didn’t and there it is. – from BBC’s Travel Writers (The Spoken Word)

A Forgotten Journey is the less well known fourth book from the same period which also saw Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Robert Byron all making journeys which resulted in classic travel narratives; a period Paul Fussell later called the British literary diaspora of the inter war years.

Fleming’s travels were not over by 1935.  After returning from his trip with Ellie Maillart, Fleming married actress Celia Johnson (Johnson went on to successful collaborations with Noel Coward and David Lean during the 1940s, most famously in Brief Encounter starring opposite Trevor Howard).

Fleming turns up in China again in 1938 (this time with wife, Celia) at a party in Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden’s Journey to a War.  (The party was also attended by British Ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, whose next posting was to Russia in 1942 where he penned the famous ‘Dear Reggie’ note).  Isherwood describes Fleming “with his drawl, his tan, his sleek, perfectly brushed hair, and lean good looks” and concludes “he is all together too good to be true – and he knows it.”   However, the pair were impressed with Fleming’s charm, physicality, linguistic and organisational skills, not to mention his Chinese habits, and eventually drop their defensive attitude (which they admit to being a “blend of anti-Etonionism and professional jealousy”).

In the postwar period, Fleming seems to have been outshone by Ian’s success with the James Bond books.  However, for any lover of travel writing, as for Isherwood and Auden, he will always be “the Fleming Legend”.

Further biographical information on Fleming and his work can be found in this article in the Telegraph and this article in the New Criterion.

Book: The Bridge by Geert Mak

The Bridge: A Journey between Orient and Occident by Geert Mak

Published by Vintage (2009) 

Without the bridge you cannot know the city

At less than 200 pages, the Bridge is not a long read, but then there are few travel books which cover such a short distance; in the case of The Bridge, the span of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge (“a journey covering no more than five hundred meters”, according to Mak’s website).

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and historian and the author of several books including Amsterdam, In Europe and most recently, In America, Travels with John Steinbeck.

Mak wrote The Bridge for Boekenweek (Dutch Book Week), an event celebrating Dutch literature and held annually since the 1930s.  As part of the event, well known authors are invited to write a book, a ‘Boekenweekgeschenk’ (book week gift), which is then given away at libraries and to those purchasing Dutch language books.

As research, Geert Mak explains on his website that he spent several weeks getting to know the bridge and those who use it.  The product is a book which describes the lives of the bridge’s booksellers, pickpockets umbrella salesmen, beggars, lottery ticket sellers, roasters of chestnuts, porters with rolls and baskets, shoe shine boys, gamblers, lovers and of course the fishermen. All their stories are here and they make a captivating portrait of the Galata Bridge which is melancholy but also full of life.

Reviewing The Bridge for The Telegraph newspaper, Jeremy Seal, author of Fez of the Heart and Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River, called Mak’s book “a sombre narrative […] stalked by multiple instances of yearning, failure and tragedy.” 

However, in a limited number of pages, Mak somehow manages to squeeze in much more than just observation and individual tales into The Bridge.

As its subtitle declares, The Bridge is ‘a journey between Orient and Occident’.  So, in between getting to know those who frequent the bridge, Mak invokes chroniclers of Istanbul (such as De Amicis, Joseph Brodsky, Orhan Pamuk, Pierre Loti) to examine Istanbul’s history and its position as a geographical and cultural crossroads; a “remarkable corner of the globe.”

Keeping the bridge as the focal point Mak mixes past and present and explores its role as meeting point and boundary for the “two spirits living within this city”; the eastward looking southern shore, home to the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace and Blue Mosque and the more modern northern shore with its skyscrapers, shopping malls and more Western outlook and mentality.  Mak skilfully weaves the stories of migration, family, community, culture, poverty, hatred, honour, hope and fear with the events of Istanbul’s past as Ottoman capital through its transformation into a modern city.

Mak therefore explores the role of the Galata Bridge not only in Istanbul’s history but as a microcosm of Turkey and as a metaphor for the East’s relationship with the West.  In doing so and, unusually for a travel book, he confronts the humiliation and desperation felt by a large proportion of the world’s population resulting in what Seal writing in the Telegraph called an “anti-travelogue”.

The Bridge is full of contrasts and apparent contradictions to and the effect is a poignant portrait of a city looking towards the future with a mixture of confidence, potential and uncertainty but not cowed by past misfortunes: 

no one gets to determine his own fate. The most important thing is your dignity, that’s one thing you must never give up.

A book worth loitering around as much as the bridge itself.

Further reading: Alex Adil’s review for the Independent is here and Jeremy Seal’s review for the Telegraph is here.

Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Back in the USSR, Maclean & Danziger

Back in the USSR, Heroic Adventures in Transnistria by Rory Maclean (with photographs by Nick Danziger)

Published by Unbound (2014)

“Friends! Comrades! Come and join us on a journey into the heart of the new age Russian Revolution.

I admit I had never heard of Transnistria until Russian troops annexed Crimea in 2014.  The region, also known as Transdniestra is an area on the east of the River Dniester between Moldova and Ukraine.  

After Moldova was annexed by the Soviets in 1940, Russsians and Ukrainians settled in the area.  Its population is split between ethnic Moldovans, Russians and Ukranians.    Following Moldova’s independenece in 1991, Transnistria seceded and fought against, and defeated, Moldovan forces with the assistance of Russian troops, who remain there as a ‘peace-keeping force’. 

Transnistria is then, in MacLean’s words, “a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union”; unique in that it has not recognised (or at least does not appear to have accepted) the collapse of the Soviet Union and is itself unrecognised by any other country.

Rory Maclean is author of several travel books including Berlin, Stalin’s Nose, Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma and Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.  Nick Danziger is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who has also written two travel books (Danziger’s Travels and Danziger’s Adventures).

Continuing a search he began in Stalin’s Nose, MacLean was inspired to visit Transnistria partly to look for “for the real end of Europe”.  It was also inspired by a desire to find out what happened to the archetype Soviet man following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Transnistria maybe a ‘nowhereland’ but it lies on a geopolitical faultline between NATO and the EU and Russia of historical and current importance.   MacLean and Danziger’s account of Transnistria and its Russian links was timely.  Their visit to the country took place not long before the annexation of Crimea by Russia, an event reflected in the text (MacLean had an article on Transnistria published in The Times (£) in January 2014; the annexation took place the following month). 

Back in the USSR is self-consciously tongue in cheek which will not be for everyone.  Viv Groskop, reviewing the book for the Spectator, found it pushing the book into “awkward territory between reportage and mockumentary”.   Back in the USSR already contains sufficient satire and outlandish facts and anecdotes to make it humorous, so it isn’t really necessary, even if it does add to Transnistria’s slightly Alice in Wonderland feel.  

While the tongue in cheek style didn’t distract from the narrative (or Nick Danziger’s photographs), it did sit a bit uneasily with the dark side of Transnistria the book revealed.  

On the surface, are bright, sharply drawn and obviously comic portraits of Communist party officials who espouse the party line under the watchful gaze of busts and statues of Lenin while they the check time on Patek Philiipe watches and drive Mercedes and Lexus cars (or is that ‘Lexi’?).  Meanwhile, in the shadows, we learn that former KGB men control most of the country’s profitable business and, probably, the presidency, state funds disappear, that arms deals and smuggling are commonplace and that fear pervades Transnistria’s citizens.  Soviet-era aspirations of equality have, for many, given birth to uncertainty about the future:  “freedom for the pike means death for the minnows”

MacLean and Danziger’s month long tour of Transnistria takes them round a factory, winery, orphanage and sanatorium, and also to the fantastically wealthy and successful FC Sherrif Tiraspol football club which was founded by two former KGB men.  It also has them visiting the Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership whose head cum guru has been connected in the past to arms sales but admires Gandhi and meeting ‘Shev’s chicks’, President’s Shevchuk’s young, female and Facebook-friendly ministers.     

“Vodka is best drunk in threes”, MacLean and Danziger are told, “If you drink alone, you are an alcoholic.  If two people drink, a man and a woman, it’s romance. But with three drinkers, you have the perfect number of companions”.  It seems three is the magic number for producing a book as well; the three companions in this case being the writer, the photographer and ‘New Soviet Man’, their host who along the way reveals his taste for Pierre Marcolini chocolates, bespoke cologne, expensive watches  and Bentleys.  And, like New Soviet Man, alcohol is also always present (along with fear and Vladimir Putin). 

Back in the USSR is not a long book and Danziger’s atmospheric and stunning photographs make up a significant proportion of the content.  Nevertheless, the blend of visual and text feels right, leaving the reader curious and wanting more.  

Rather than straight reportage,  Back in the USSR is a journey in the company of two people revelling in the people and contradictions they encounter among the former Communist archetypes of Transnistria “who got real” following the fall of the Soviet Union.  At the same time, the text and photographs ensure that Back in the USSR does not overlook the human stories caught up amongst the slogans and posturing of the elite.  

Some of Nick Danziger’s photos of Transnistria can be seen on his website

See Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger introduce Back in the USSR here:

 

The book itself is as different as its subject matter.  Back in the USSR is crowd sourced by publisher Unbound which is a bit like Kickstarter but for books.  Authors pitch their book ideas directly to readers in the hope that prospective readers will pledge money, allowing titles to be published which mainstream publishers might overlook.  In return, would be readers receive different tiers of rewards depending on the amount they pledge and their name appears in the published book. Check out Unbound here

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

“All my life I have been interested in adventure and, abroad, I have enjoyed the frisson of leaving the wide well-lit streets and venturing up back alleys in search of the hidden, authentic pulse of towns.”  Ian Fleming

After the Second World War, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond and brother of travel writer Peter Fleming), joined the Sunday Times newspaper as Foreign Manager.  He was responsible for sending correspondents around the world and seeing that they delivered “intelligent stuff”.

In 1959, it was his turn and Fleming was urged by his editorial board to “do something exciting and write about it.”  He did and so made two journeys around thirteen “thrilling cities of the world.”  The resulting essays, which Fleming referred to as ‘mood pieces’, were serialised in the Sunday Times in 1959/60 and then published as Thrilling Cities in 1962.

The book follows the two journeys.  The first half recounts a 30 day round the world air trip in 1959 taking in eight ‘exotic’ cities. The second, a six week, six city and 6000 mile trip around Europe in a seven litre Thunderbird made in the spring of the following year (1960).

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1963, Fleming was asked by presenter Roy Plomley whether there was much of him in James Bond.  Fleming laughed and replied:

I hope not…people do connect me with James Bond simply because I happen to like scrambled eggs and short sleeved shirts and some of the things that James Bond does but, err, I certainly haven’t got his guts nor his, err, very lively appetites.

That may be but, as the title suggests, what Fleming records are not the ‘tourist sights’. Instead, he uses his “tin-opener” to “find out what goes on behind the facade” of his stop-offs and reveals the exotic, shady and, at times, seedy background of his James Bond thrillers.

Whether describing Hamburg’s nightlife or Berlin’s transvestites, having tea with Lucky Luciano in Naples, spending time with fortune tellers and geishas, dining with Noel Coward and Charlie Chaplin, meeting Hollywood producers or crime reporters in Chicago, Fleming is always in his element and moves effortlessly between respectability (and his Establishment friends and contacts) and the more unusual side of his destinations.

Some encounters, like that in Macao with Dr Lobo, a multi million pound gold dealer, and his “powerfully built butler, who looked more like a judo black-belt than a butler” could almost have come straight from the pages of his novels.

Fleming is equally at ease with a champagne and jet-set lifestyle and provides interesting glimpses of what travel used to be like – smoking on aircraft, Elizabeth Arden cosmetics handed out to passengers, refuelling in ‘the’ Lebanon and flying your car across the Channel rather than using a ferry.  They convey the excitement and glamour of travel at the start of the jet age and also Fleming’s enthusiasm for travel and delight at “hammering out the miles” driving across Europe in the post war period.

On his way, Fleming makes absorbing observations about travel and tourists.  He complains in Honolulu about the “high-pressure tourist atmosphere and the uniformity of the tourist and retire population.”  He prefers his hotels “unsullied by the tourist smear” and accuses tourists who pay to hear the Vienna boys choir of only “collecting the occasion, like a postage stamp.”  In Italy, he avoids Venice, refuses guides and guidebooks at Pompeii and makes wry comments about the country and its people.  In a post-imperialist lament, he notes the decline of British cultural and commercial influence around the world and exhorts younger people to show more interest in the ‘Orient’ and to travel more.

Bond is never far off, whether in the Las Vegas gambling tips courtesy of Fleming’s ‘connected’ contact, the advice on how to drink sake or in the casino at Monte Carlo.  At times it feels as though Fleming is playing to the gallery but perhaps there is more of him in Bond than he admits.  (A distinct possibility for a man whose idea of a literary gaffe is making reference in his novels to half bottles of Pol Roger champagne, when Pol Roger does not in fact produce half bottles.)

Fleming modestly claimed that he was not in the “Shakespeare stakes” and had no ambitions to more serious writing.  However, he was obviously well travelled and had an eye for the interesting and unusual combined with a lust for life and foreign travel.  As a result, Thrilling Cities is never boring but is an enjoyable whistle stop world tour seen through the eyes of James Bond’s creator just before that world was presented to cinema audiences in the first of the Bond films.

It is worth pointing out that Thrilling Cities was not Fleming’s only contribution to the travel writing genre.  In the late 50s while still Foreign Manager at the ST, he sent Norman Lewis to Cuba to report on Castro’s chances against the Batista regime. While there, Lewis interviewed a Dubonnet-soaked Hemingway, an episode recounted by Lewis in The World, The World.  But that, as they say, is another story.

Book: “Exterminate all the brutes”

Lindqvist Saharan JourneyExterminate all the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist

Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)

“You already know enough.  So do I.  It is not knowledge we lack.  What is missing is he courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

In his preface, Swedish born journalist, Sven Lindqvist, sums up Exterminate All the Brutes, by stating:

“This is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man traveling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination.  In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in one sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.””

In his 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote speechLindqvist says that his career in reportage started “with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother” which, when he was a boy, he saved from one of his mother’s periodic clear outs.  The book was a diary by Swedish missionary Edward Sjöblom who travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1892 and travelled by boat up the Congo searching for a suitable spot to found a mission.  

The graphic and horrific descriptions in Sjöblom’s diary of the treatment meted out to locals by colonists had a profound effect on Lindqvist (the diary “with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events”).  Lindqvist wanted to become like Sjöblom:  “[n]ot a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it.  I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.”

Lindqvist expands this story in Exterminate All the Brutes.  The book’s central idea is that we forget uncomfortable truths: “the Germans have been made sole scapegoats of extermination that are actually a common European heritage” the reason being that “[w]e do not want to remember.  We want genocide to have begun and ended with nazism. That is what is most comforting.” 

In a Guardian profile on Lindqvist, Stuart Jeffries writes that Exterminate All the Brutes “is extraordinary for not being straightforward historical text but travel diary. [Lindqvist] wrote it while crossing the Sahara on buses and, at the same time, journeying through the history of extermination.”

Lindqvist sets out to the “desert of deserts” in Africa “carrying under one arm the core of European thought stored on an old fashioned computer”.  In what Richard Gott called “an ingeniously researched exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as a travel book though time and space”, Lindqvist disappears into this desert in an attempt to create the time and distance he needs to explore and understand the material he has collected but never has the time to go through to and which Lindqvist asserts “simply tells the truth we prefer to forget.”  

As Richard Gott says, Lindqvist is “not really a “travel writer” in the usual sense, but he uses the experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration of problems that are often a good deal nearer home.” (Gott and Lindqvist originally met in Bolivia in 1967 on the trail of Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign and have been friends since.)

Lindqvist’s is burdened on his journey by the physical weight of his pack and laptop which could easily be a metaphor for the wright of the knowledge he is carrying in it.  Fear overshadows his journey:

Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling?  Perhaps in fear we seek an increased perception of life, a more potent form of existence?  I am frightened, therefore I exist.  The more frightened I am, the more I exist.”

At times, this is the normal fear of a traveler setting out on a journey, a sensation soon to be replaced by elation (I am frightened as usual.  But when departure finally cannot be postponed any longer, as I stand there at dawn with my heavy pack, crouching before the leap – then I am again elated at being where I am”) or it is the fear of a physical danger – being buried in the sand (“Everything is covered with sand, my sleeping bag, my notebook, my suitcase, even my body.  My eyelids are lie sandpaper against my eyeballs.  The air is too thick to breathe”) or suffering from the heat. 

These fears, however, could just as easily be fear of teetering on the edge of the conclusions he will draw from his understanding of the material he carries, knowing that he cannot then un-know them.  Or they could be the claustrophobia he experiences from immersing himself so completely in the material or a fear of being buried under the sheer weight of the many textual references.  

The travelogue makes up a small proportion of the overall text, but the fragments shine through his description of the history of extermination.  And, although his prose is as sparse as the desert he describes it is no less evocative for it (“You long for trees in the desert, not just for the shade they provide, but also because they stretch up toward space”).

Making his own journey into darkness, after Conrad, Lindqvist traces a line across the blank of the heart of the Sahara.  His journey begins in El Golea (almost in the geographical centre of Algeria) and follows an overland route through the desert to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, close to the Nigerian border.   Although he does not visit obvious places associated with his subject such as Congo or Sudan, his ultimate goal becomes clear, neatly tying together both journeys with a firing parallel which I won’t spoil. 

Lindqvist acknowledged in his Lettre Ulysses lecture, that not everyone agrees with his conclusions, not least the Belgians (“The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial”).   However, there is no denying that Lindqvist tells a compelling story in an imaginative manner.

At the time of writing, Exterminate All the Brutes is published by Granta in Saharan Journey alongside Lindqvist’s other desert travelogue, Desert Divers.