Two Books & audio: Going Solo & Love from Boy – Roald Dahl’s adventures abroad


Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Published by Penguin (1986)

I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have.

Roald Dahl is famous as the author of acclaimed children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, George’s Marvellous MedicineFantastic Mr Fox, Danny Champion of the World and, of course, Revolting Rhymes all of which were among my favourite books when I was growing up. 

Going Solo, however, is non-fiction and is the second of Dahl’s two short autobiographical works.  The first, Boy recalls his childhood and school days.  Going Solo finds Dahl leaving home and England to find his way in the world as an employee of the Shell oil company in an African outpost of the British Empire.  A companion volume to both is Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother.

Interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs by Roy Plomley in 1979, Dahl talks about his early travelling life and how, aged 17, after finishing school he embarked on an adventure with the Public Schools Exploring Society.  


The PSES (now the British Exploring Society and part of the Royal Geographical Society) was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, who was a member of Captain Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.  The expedition which Dahl joined involved hiking through Newfoundland carrying a 114lb pack and involved experimenting with eating boiled lichen and reindeer most supplement their meagre rations.

Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after leaving school, Dahl told Plomley that he knew at the very least that he wanted to “get a job that will take me to distant lands.”  

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s.  Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China.  These were distant and magical lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more.  But it was a very different matter in 1933.  (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl went for an interview with Shell to join its Eastern Staff.  One of 5 successful interviewees out of 60 candidates, Dahl believed that Shell’s board of directors had been impressed by his school prize for heavyweight boxing.  

Dahl’s Shell Company interview, his trip to Newfoundland and early working days in London as a businessman are covered in Boy:

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer,  His only compensation is absolute freedom.  He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl also described in Boy how he had been offered and turned down a position in Egypt:

What I wanted was jungles and lions and elephants and tall coconut palms swaying on silvery beaches, and Egypt had none of that.  Egypt was desert country.  It was bare and sandy and full of tombs and relics and Egyptians and I didn’t fancy it at all. 

Within a week of turning down Egypt, Dahl was offered East Africa and Going Solo picks up his story after the Shell interview and the completion of two years’ training in the UK and joins Dahl on his way to Mombasa in 1938 aboard the SS Mantilla.

Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.   

Only 22 years old, Dahl was headed for Tanganyika (what is now broadly Tanzania) and Dar es Salaam,  where he learned Swahili, shook scorpions from his boots, contracted malaria, visited sisal plantations and diamond mines and “saw that chaps had the right type of lubricating oil for machinery.” 

Dahl was in East Africa for only a short time when the Second World War broke out.  Dahl saw active service in North Africa, Greece and Palestine before being invalided back to the UK.  

From there he was sent to Washington DC and formed part of British intelligence’s efforts to persuade the United States to join the war.  It was in Washington and after a meeting with CS Forester that Dahl began to write.  

At the end of the war, Dahl resigned from the Shell company and started his writing career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Going Solo focuses on Dahl’s time in East Africa and as a pilot in the Second World War.  It contains entertaining descriptions of his journey out to Africa and the colonial/empire types he meets on board as well as his brief period working in Tanganyika where he encountered lions and black mambas.  This part of Going Solo is relatively short although, as Dahl frankly acknowledged: 

any job, even if it is in Africa, is not continuously enthralling, I have tried to be as selective as possible and have written only about those moments that I consider memorable.

Dahl, however, sells his East African experience short in his foreword to Going Solo.  A volume of Dahl’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock, was published in 2016 under the title Love From Boy.  

These letters contain funny and candid glimpses of Dahl’s experiences in Africa, from daily routines, nights getting ‘whistled’ at the Dar es Salaam club, drinking coconut milk and gin, fancy dress parties, living 50 yards from the beach in a villa with staff, snooker, golf, cinema visits, dinners with colonels, breakfasts of tea and an orange and hours spent listening to the wireless or symphonies on his gramophone: 

It looks as though [my drinks bill] may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper [drunkard] 

As the Second World War draws closer, both Going Solo and the letters in Love from Boy chart the rising tensions with the East African German community.  In one letter, Dahl recounts an evening spent throwing darts at photos of Hitler and Goebbels, reporting:

There’s the hell of a showdown – you see there are so many Germans in this place & everything is rather on the boil – we seemed to have squeezed the bugger…Moral: Don’t throw darts at Hitler’s Balls in public they’re private parts. 

After a brief spell in the King’s African Rifles rounding up Germans in East Africa at the outbreak of the war, Dahl drove 600 miles to Nairobi at the end of 1939 where he enlisted as an airman and completed his basic pilot training.  

He writes about the “marvellous fun” of flying over Africa and viewing the Rift Valley’s volcanic craters, lakes, villages, flamingos, wildebeest and giraffes and how, in Iraq where he underwent further training, tribesmen took potshots at the planes from the hills.  

While in Iraq, Dahl took a photograph of the Arch of Ctesiphon while flying a biplane, for which he was given a bronze medal by the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo.  His letters also describe sightseeing trips to Cairo, the Pyramids and to Babylon and detail the daily hazards of life in Iraq from scorpions, snakes, the flooding of the Euphrates and the Bedouin.  

After Iraq, Dahl was posted to North Africa and then to Greece where he took part in the Battle for Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter before being evacuated to Egypt.  From Suez, he drove alone up to Haifa where he rejoined his squadron and the Syrian Campaign against the Vichy Airforce.

It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome. 

Going Solo is primarily a wartime memoir but evokes the places he is posted at that particular time from colonial life in East Africa, drinking retsina and eating olives in Greece and encountering Jewish refugees in (then) Palestine.  His letters in Love from Boy give more of a feel for daily life, are amusing and well worth a read.  

Dahl’s descriptions of air battles in Going Solo are exhilarating although his enthralment with flying is tempered by sober descriptions of how only 3 of the 16 men he trained with survived the war, comrades who were killed and the long odds of surviving as a wartime pilot. 

However, before reading Going Solo, I hadn’t appreciated that Dahl was nearly among those who died following a near fatal crash in North Africa which left him badly burned and temporarily without sight.

This crash has been credited with starting Dahl’s writing career.  According to Ronald Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock:   

A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.  (from Roald Dahl: the plane crash that gave birth to a writer by Donald Sturrock, published in The Daily Telegraph, 9 August 2010)

Dahl himself once said of the incident:

It’s my cosy little theory, that because i was a fairly square young chap intent on a happy business life with the Shell Company and that I started writing soon after that maybe the head helped. (from Roald Dahl: In His Own Words)

In this programme for BBC Radio 3 to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses the myth that Dahl made out of the crash and how his flying career and the accident influenced his work.  He also draws interesting comparisons with Antoine Saint-Exupéry, another celebrated aviator and children’s author.  


Dahl continued travelling in later life including to Japan as part of his work on the film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.  Dahl also worked on the screenplay for the film of Fleming’s childrens’ story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

He went onto to become a highly successful writer of children’s and adult fiction.  In relation to his writing, Dahl thought of himself primary as an entertainer but also tried his best to teach children to love reading books:

My crusade is to teach small children to love books so much that it becomes a habit and they realise that books are worth reading.

Books, if you are going to be anything, are vital in life.

For more on Roald Dahl’s life, listen to this edited selection of interviews (or click on embedded player below) covering different episodes from his life and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as Roald Dahl: In HIs Own Words as part of the BBC’s Roald Dahl at 100 season.


Alternatively, try Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl (which was also serialised in The Telegraph, here) or Sturrock’s edited collection of Dahl’s correspondence to his mother which is an excellent and essential companion to Boy and Going Solo and contains letters from his Newfoundland trip, time in East Africa and his war years.  There is also Jennet Conant’s history, The Irregulars, which focuses on Roald Dahl’s time in Washington DC.

      

Book: Harry Franck’s All About Going Abroad (1,411 words)

All About Going Abroad 
by Harry A. Franck  

Brentano’s, New York (1927)

The first obvious question of the prospective traveler is where to go…Our little planet may be but a speck in even our own solar system, but there is enough of keen interest on it to keep anyone traveling incessantly for a life-time. 

Born in 1881, Harry Alverson Franck, ‘Prince of Vagabonds’, travelled unceasingly and extensively during the first 30 years of the 20th century and wrote more than 25 books about his journeys.

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Central to Franck’s philosophy of travel was the idea that “a man with a bit of energy and good health could start without money and make a journey around the globe”.  

He put his money (or lack of it) where his mouth was and after graduating from university began a year long journey around the world.  He travelled mostly on foot, with very little money and with no fixed itinerary, going wherever the journey took him.  Franck wrote about this trip in his first travel book, A Vagabond Journey Around the World, which was published in 1911.  Franck expanded on his philosophy in his foreword to that book

Travel for pleasure has ever been considered a special privilege of the wealthy. That a man without ample funds should turn tourist seems to his fellow-beings an action little less reprehensible than an attempt to finance a corporation on worthless paper.  He who would see the world, and has not been provided the means thereto by a considerate ancestor, should sit close at home until his life work is done, his fortune made.  Then let him travel; when his eyes have grown too dim to catch the beauty of a distant landscape, when struggle and experience have rendered him blase and unimpressionable.

The idea of not waiting until retirement before travelling the world was echoed in the “retire young, work old” philosophy of Johnny Case, Cary Grant’s character in George Cukor’s 1938 film Holiday, in which Grant starred with Katharine Hepburn:

Whereas Grant’s character Case wanted to make a bit of money and then head out travelling, Franck didn’t think it was necesary even to do that before leaving home.

After his vagabond year, Franck travelled through Central and South America for a number of years, including working as a policeman for a time in the Panama Canal Zone.  He wrote about these travels in several books which were published either side of his First World War military service:  Zone Policeman 88 (1913), Tramping Through Mexico Guatemala, and Honduras (1916), Vagabonding Down the Andes (1917) and Working North from Patagonia (1921). 

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Image from http://www.harryafranck.com

Throughout the remainder of the Twenties and Thirties, Franck continued to travel widely, visiting China, Russia, Japan, the West Indies, Germany, Europe, the Middle East and what was French Indochina.  His last book, published in 1943, saw him return to South America.  

Aged 61, Franck obtained a commission as a Major and served with the Ninth Air Force in the closing days of World War Two, an experience he wrote about in Winter Journey Through the Ninth (published posthumously by his family).  Franck died in 1962.

All About Going Abroad is slightly different to Franck’s other books.  Although written with his usual wry humour, rather than narrating a particular journey, All About distills Franck’s travel experiences into a short book of advice for aspiring travellers.

Consequently, it deals with the where, when and how of travel as well as preparations before travel such as obtaining passports and visas and carrying funds as well as information on how to plan a journey. 

There is advice on choosing a class and berth on a ship, how to carry funds, etitquette onboard ships including securing a deck chair in an advantageous position and making arrangements for morning baths.  He covers the complexities and differences in rail travel in different countries, highlighting that the luggage allowance and checked baggage rules were as complicated and varied in the Twenties as they can be among airlines today.   He also addresses the emergence of passenger air travel, noting that Imperial Airways had as many as 6 daily flights between London and Paris by 1927. 

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Published in 1927, some of the advice in All About Going Abroad, such as the lists of times it takes to travel between major European cities and the requirement to take formal dinner wear on a cruise, reveals how much travel has changed since Franck’s time.  

However, it also highlights how little some aspects of travel had changed until very recently.  Travellers cheques are still in use even though the double signing procedure seems charmingly old fashioned in an era when most transactions simply require a four digit code or contactless payment.  Stocking up on camera film and ensuring they were protected from the elements was also a preoccupation until relatively recently as was the use of forwarding addresses and Poste Restante until email arrived on the scene (although I admit it never occurred to me to suggest to family that they send the same letter to different places in case the letter missed me at the first address).     

While the packing list may seem outdated (few travellers would now pack a masquerade costume), Franck’s advice on the approach to packing is still valid:

The first and last rule as to clothing is to take as little as possible. A famous traveler-author makes it a rule to lay out his outfit for a new trip in three piles— 1. The things he is sure to use every day; 2. The things he is likely to need two or three times a week; 3. The things he may need. Then, throwing away the second and third piles, he goes on his way rejoicing. 

Similarly, Franck’s advice on ‘slow travel’ is also timeless:

You will get more enjoyment, at less cost, out of a leisurely journey through a small but carefully chosen section of Europe—or of any other foreign country—than by dashing across the whole continent hitting only the high spots.”

When discussing different types of travellers, Franck also reveals that ‘off the beaten track’ travel was as much a preoccupation in the 1920s as it is today.  Drawing distinctions between different types of travellers and travelling styles, he highlights those who go independently and:

prefer to meet the world face to face by depending on their own resources. That way, they feel, may be more probability of adventure, more likelihood of genuine thrills. For the sake of these  they are willing to forego the greater comfort of the “independent tour” and to accept philosophically the disappointments caused by the failure to secure always the accommodations they wish.

Franck admits though, that his favourite way to travel is as ‘the plain wanderer’:

That need not by any means imply a penniless individual; wealthy wanderers are far from rare. But such a one would never think of accepting a fixed itinerary from anyone. He may drop into a tourist agency and buy a ticket or “book accommodations” to the place he has suddenly decided to go to next, because a tourist agency is often the easiest place to get such things, and the general information that goes with them, all at no increase in price. But he leaves his route open, as people like to feel they keep their minds open, so that if he hears in the smoking room one night of a wonderful new ruin just uncovered, or catches a whisper in a native bazaar of something no other tourist has ever visited, he may forthwith go and see. But it takes a certain amount of phlegm and self-reliance, and energy, not to say freedom from calendar limitations, to accomplish and enjoy this form of travel. Besides, we are now hanging over the brink of the chasm which separates the mere traveler from the adventurer and explorer, and to these latter I am not presuming to proffer advice.  

All About Going Abroad is not just a glimpse of travel as it used to be but thanks to Franck’s insights is, in some respects, also a book about what travel still is and can be.  It is short but fascinating and ends with a seemingly paradoxical sentiment:  

Home again at last, it often happens that your journey in retrospect is the most delightful of all the pleasures of travel, not even excepting anticipation.

All About Going Abroad is available to view online free of charge at Hathitrust although it is sadly not possible to downlaod a copy.  For more Harry Franck books, the best bet is the Internet Archive.  

Further information about Harry Franck life and writing is available on Wikipedia and on the website run by his grandson: www.harryafranck.com

Article: On air travel – Pat downs, pissing & passport stamps

I remember when flying was a luxury experience, when the flight attendants were nice to you and everyone got a meal. Today, it’s as rough as hitchhiking and the planes are all beat to hell.

Great trilogy of essays taken from the book, Airplane Reading by Christopher Schaberg and Marck Yakich.

Airplane Reading brings together a collection of essays from writers, airline workers and travellers about the experience of travel by air.

The collection approaches the subject from a number of different perspectives. It doesn’t always focus on the miracle of mechanical flight and is less medidative than Paul Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring.

The three essays extracted and appearing on Literary Hub deal with airport security, agonising waits for the seatbelt sign to switch off and how one relative of an airline employee utilised their free air travel benefits.

Short and sharply written they are funny and worth a read.

 

Book: Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St-Exupéry

Wind, Sand and Stars
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Penguin Classics (first published in 1939)

We tasted the gentle excitement of a well planned celebration and yet we were infinitely destitute. Wind, sand and stars. Austere even for a Trappist. But on that poorly lit patch, six or seven men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories were sharing invisible riches.

In his NYRB review of Stacy Schiff’s biography of St-Exupéry ($), Al Alvarez reminds us that air travel was not always “just another tribulation we endure in the name of impatience” which involved dashing to airports, endless queuing and anxieties about whether there will space in the overhead bins for your carry on bag (tip: pack less).  

Alvarez recalls that those who flocked to watch early aviators were in awe of the strangeness of flying, the bravery of the airmen and the sheer miracle of mechanical flight.  In its early days, flying was the “point at which engineering intersects with the imagination.”  He notes that the French were “particularly susceptible” to poetic hyberole associated with the romance of flying. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was one of those Frenchmen. 

St-Exupéry was primarily a writer of fiction (Night Flight and Flight to Arras as well as The Little Prince) but Wind, Sand and Stars is St-Exupéry’s lyrical exposition of his fascination with flying.  He  expresses his delight for the new machines with a child like enthusiasm albeit tempered with caution (we are “barbarians still enthralled by our new toys”).  Although he cares about the aesthetics of modern machines (“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing to take away”) he is careful to emphasise that the machines themselves not the point:

The aeroplane is a means, not an end.  It is not for the plane that we risk our lives.  Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs.  But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.

The truth St-Exupéry is seeking is purposeful living.  In Wind, Sand and Stars he aims to grab us by the shoulders while there is still time and urges us to live.

He begins by conveying the experience and sensations of early flight.  Peter Hausler, writing in Post Road Magazine observes that the most gripping chapters are those describing “the harrowing dangers faced by early aviators.”  The physical exertion and mental toll endured by St-Exupéry and other Aeropostale pilots is vividly conveyed.  Their work opening up the the first air mail routes was extremely dangerous.  The pilots were exposed to the elements and had to feel their way through storms, flying blind without the technology available to modern pilots.   

Wind, Sand and Stars contains atmospheric passages about preparing for night flights. The calmness, mundane routines and exchanges that precede the excitement and danger.  There are elegies for lost comrades. the elation of being in the desert and treading on ground which nothing but celestial debris has touched and the famous crash landing in the Libyan desert which almost resulted in his death.

Despite the risks, St-Exupéry writes about those flights with a child’s love of fairy tales. He encounters strange lands, castles and forbidden kingdoms where mountains are castle ramparts and pilots are dragon-slaying knights.   

St-Exupéry struggled with the idea of being confined by regular urban life with its stifling rituals, suburban trains and people living an ant-like existence with their freedom reduced to Sundays.  Notwithstanding the dangers of his profession St-Exupéry was happy because he had at least tasted freedom (“breathed the wind of the sea”).

Some men stay closeted in their title shops.  Others travel with urgency on a necessary road.

Wind, Sand and Stars is a manifesto then, for love, friendship, courage, humility, freedom, responsibility; for recognising what is of true value and seizing life.  Its message is not that to live we must fly.  It is that we should not allow ourselves to to ossify or spend our lives in pursuit of things which have little meaning: 

When we work merely for material gain, we build our own prison […] If I search among my memories for those whose taste is lasting, if I write the balance sheet of the moments that truly counted, I surely find those that no fortune could have bought me.

It is an inspiring book which diagnoses the malady yet also prescribes the remedy:  

What saves a man is to take a step. And another step.
It’s that same first step repeated.

For further reading, see this article by Daniel Buck in the magazine of the South American Explorers Club: 

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: 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: Richard Halliburton, The Flying Carpet

The Flying Carpet
by Richard Halliburton

Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (2012); First published 1933

“Wings! With a winged ship, I could still be a vagabond, but a vagabond
with the clouds for my province, as well as the continents.”

Born in 1900 and a graduate of Princeton, Halliburton’s life might have followed a more conventional path were it not for his insatiable desire for excitement and adventure.

Running off to travel in England and France while at Princeton, Halliburton wrote to his father making it clear that he did not intend to return his life to “an even tenor”, writing to his father:

“I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921 and was true to his word.  Idolising youthful heroes such as Byron, TE Lawrence, George Mallory, Rupert Brooke, Halliburton set out to create a life of adventure for himself.  On the strength of his daring, his good looks, journalism and tireless theatrical lecturing, Halliburton became a celebrity with best selling books like Royal Road to Romance and The Glorious Adventure (also available for free, here), recounting his journeys around the world during the 1920s and adhering to his simple philosophy:

Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.

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After losing a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Halliburton had to scrape the money together for his next adventure, flying around the world in a two seater, open cockpit Stearman biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet and wrote about in the eponymous book.

Halliburton could not fly, so enlisted experienced pilot Moye Stephens to fly the plane offering him no wage but unlimited expenses. After shipping the Flying Carpet to England, the pair embarked on a 40,000 mile journey taking in Saharan Africa,, Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia, before putting the Flying Carpet back on a ship to sail for San Francisco. (Read more about the journey here and here.)

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Their trip was daring and pioneering.  Lindbergh had only made his solo flight across the Atlantic a few years earlier.  They had no support. Shell Oil had kindly given them the location of an oil tank in the Sahara at which they could refuel although finding it meant following tyre tracks across the desert.  The journey had plenty of romance; they met maharajahs and took princes and princesses up in the Flying Carpet in Iraq and Persia.  They met a stranded German aviatrix, Elly Beinhorn who joined them, swapped the Flying Carpet’s wheels for floats in south east Asia and met headhunters in Borneo. They flew past the Taj Mahal and took the first aerial photos of Mount Everest and gave aerobatic displays on their way round.  

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It is a dizzying journey and Halliburton’s breathless style matches it. By the fourth page they have crossed America, sailed across the Atlantic and have flown south from England across France and Spain to Gibraltar.   It is apparent that they landed and visited many more places than are described, places like Rangoon barely registering a mention.  It was only four years since Lindbergh had become the first person ever to be in New York one day and in Paris on the next; this was a new way of seeing the old world just before it changed.  It is hard not to feel Halliburton’s excitement and be swept along by his enthusiasm.  

Halliburton is no poet like that other famous flying writer, Antoine St Exupery and his style is not necessarily fashionable.  Susan Sontag noted in her 2001 essay Homage to Halliburton (published in her 2002 collection, Where the Stress Falls):

Enthusiasm for travel may not be expressed so giddily today, but I’m sure that the seeking of what is strange or beautiful, or both, remains just as pleasurable and addictive

For Sontag, Halliburton’s books were some of the most important of her life, fusing the idea of being a traveller and a writer as she recalled how his books,

described for me an idea of pure happiness.  And of successful volition.  You have something in mind.  You imagine it. You prepare for it. You voyage toward it. Then you see it. And there is no disappointment; indeed, it may even be more captivating than you imagined. 

Like many of his youthful heroes, Halliburton died young.  He had embarked on another adventure in March 1939, sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean.  He went missing and was pronounced dead in October of that year.

Although not written in a literary style, Tahir Shah points out in his foreword that “great travel writing is all about evoking an atmosphere of adventure” and Halliburton certainly does that with his undiminished enthusiasm for seeking the world’s wonders and conveying his genuine delight at what he is doing.