Book: Sunil Khilnani travels India in search of 50 lives

Incarnations
by Sunil Khilnani

Allen Lane (2016)

India’s past is an arena of ferocious contest, its dead heroes continually springing back to life and despatched to the frontlines of equally ferocious contemporary cultural and political battles.

Incarnations is fascinating project.  I am still working my way through the podcasts but attended an recent talk at Stanfords travel bookshop in London recently at which Sunil Khilnani introduced his book.

Sunil Khilnani is Professor and Director of the India Institute at King’s College London.  As noted by the Independent, the format for this project closely follows that showcased by the British Museum in the series in which is explored the history of the world through 100 objects.  In Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani explores India’s culture and history through 50 lives. 

In his review for the Guardian, William Dalrymple quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “There is properly no history, only biography.”   Professor Khilnani makes this his starting point, observing that Indian history is generally ‘unpeopled’ with its focus usually being on dynasties and epochs.  With Incarnations, Khilnani aims to redress that.  Starting the series with the Buddha, Khilnani takes us on a journey through the lives of scholars, philosophers, warriors, politicians, activists, painters, writers, filmmakers and industrialists from the earliest Indian records to the present day.  

The list includes some famous names and others which are more obscure.  For those less familiar with Indian history, some of the chapter titles are a little cryptic, but they are invariably engaging and enlightening.  There are surprising or obvious omissions, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, although Incarnations does not claim to be a pantheon.   

What makes Incarnations so engaging is that the each of the short chapters is not a dry historical biography.  True to its title, Incarnations explores how traces of historical figures continue to resurface in contemporary India.  To accomplish this, Khilnani travelled throughout India to the birthplaces of the 50 individuals and conducted interviews to examine their relevance today.  Listening to the podcasts is an ideal way to appreciate these. 

Reviews of Incarnations are available online in the Financial TimesThe Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent.  A second review in the Guardian from author Siddhartha Deb stands apart from the others as being more cautious, noting that Incarnations offers “a pleasant encounter with the idea that is India”, that distracts from the current political reality. 

All episodes are available either to listen to on or download free from the BBC’s website, here.  Ideal for dipping in and out of (each chapter is about 15 minutes to listen to or about 10-15 pages in the book),  Incarnations is a fascinating introduction to Indian culture and history.  Listen to the first episode here:

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: 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.

BellK_218_Gertrude_Bell_in_Iraq_in_1909_age_41

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: Walking the Himalayas with Levison Wood

Walking the Himalayas
by Levison Wood 

Hodder & Houghton (2016)

So long as you’re not armed and come in peace, you’re willing to adopt local customs with sensitivity to culture and tradition and try not to judge too much – however tempting – you’ll generally be fine.

This is the second published expedition from former Parachute Regiment officer, Levison Wood.  His first, Walking the Nile, which was inspired by 19th century explorers such as Burton, Speke, Livingston, recounted his 2013/4 expedition walking the entire length of the Nile of 4,250 miles from from Rwanda to the Mediterranean and was commissioned as a documentary for Channel 4 in the UK.

In 2015, after a restless period in London, Wood decided its was time for another expedition and in 2015 he set out to walk over 1700 miles traversing the Himalayas, beginning in June in the west in the Wakhan Corridor, a finger of land separating Tajikistan from Pakistan in north eastern Afghanistan, and ending in the east in the kingdom of Bhutan in November.

This expedition was again commissioned as a documentary for television and the whole series is available to watch here on Channel 4.

The book however makes more than just an excellent companion and captures much more of the experience of Wood’s epic journey than a few short TV episodes ever could (good as the series is).  

It has more background and takes three or so chapters before the walk begins proper.  But, that enables Wood to relive a youthful backpacking trip during which he met one of his guides, Binod and also time to talk us through his frustration at finding himself back in London after walking the Nile.   We learn a bit more abut him and what motivates and inspires him and he sufficiently conveys his boredom as he reorganises his extensive travel library thematically and whiles away his time in Gordon’s wine bar in Charing Cross.

Having fixed on the region, Wood decides that, rather than breaking records or climbing mountains, he will use the opportunity to explore on foot the foothills and lower mountains of the Himalayas: 

For me it was the people I encountered that attracted me to travel.  And travelling on foot is the only way to explore the backcountry and villages that are hidden from the main trails and roads.  it is also the way people have travelled in these regions for millennia and there seems to be a common bond between pedestrians everywhere. The physical hardships, the risks, the user vulnerability mean that on the whole you will be looked upon as a fellow human being rather than a foreigner or, worse, a tourist.”

Wood is a great travel companion.  He is knowledgeable and informative on the region and its history having visited most of the places previously but is unpretentious with an easy manner.   He takes the journey’s difficulties in his stride (and despite being at relatively lower altitudes for the Himalayas, there were plenty.)  

Its about the journey, its about the people that you meet and its about sharing those experiences.

The personal, whether the characters he meets, people who join him for parts of the walk or about what Wood reveals of himself, are at the heart of this journey and make it one worth accompanying him on.  As you’d expect, he meets a wide variety of people and, while he approaches those he meets with openness, he has a healthy scepticism rather than a wide eyed naivety, which is refreshing.  

London’s travel bookshop, Stanford’s held an event with Levison Wood in February 2016 and is available as a podcast on iTunes via their blog on the Stanford’s website. (sorry, can’t figure out to how to embed it here.) Worth a listen (32 mins plus 15mins Q&A) to get a good sense both of Levison Wood and of the trip. 

Find out a bit more about Levinson Wood, his trek and explorer heartthrob status here in the Telegraph, here in Stuff magazine, here in the Stoke Sentinel, Wood’s local paper (as well as here and here).  You can also always try  Walking the Himalayas as an audiobook narrated by Levison Wood on a free trial from audible.com:

Book: Emily Hahn, Maharajahs & Tigers

Tiger House Party: Last days of the Maharajahs
by Emily Hahn

Doubleday & Co (1959)

A headline in a British newspaper I was skimming through read “Indian Princes Threatened with Extinction.”  It made me wonder.

This short but interesting book collects together four feature articles which were originally published as a series in the New Yorker magazine in 1958.

Emily Hahn reports on how India’s 600 or so dethroned princes were faring in the period not long after partition and India and Pakistan’s independence from Britain in 1947.  

Never fully part of the British Empire, the princely states were semi-independent.  As arrangements for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (East and West) proceeded, creative negotiation was needed in some cases to persuade the princes to join India rather than Pakistan.   Dethroned, the princes were given no formal role in the new constitution and were transformed from rulers of states with powers of taxation to citizens almost overnight.

ehahn

Nevertheless, although divested of all formal power, the former princes were merely down but not out and remained as a social class.

While the princes were getting used to their new order, Hahn was invited by the Rajah of Bundi to a house party at Phoolsagar Palace to celebrate his 37th birthday.  Hahn considers the history of the royal family of Bundi and their descent from the sun and, as well as attending the Rajah’s birthday celebrations and of course describing the party, she joins a tiger hunt, goes flying, takes part in the festival of Holi, visits the old royal palace and also meets the Rajah‘s daughter Princess Kitten.  

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Hahn is not Bundi’s only literary claim to fame.  Rudyard Kipling visited Bundi and is supposed to have written (or at least have been inspired to write) his novel Kim here.  He also wrote the poem, The Last Suttee about the death of the king of Boondi, whose wives mourn his passing and prepare to throw themselves on to the funeral pyre in defiance of the English ban of the traditional practice of suttee.

In 1887/8, Kipling also toured Rajahstan (known as Rajputana at the time) for the Pioneer in Allahabad and wrote a series of letters for them.  The letters which were collected and published as Letters of Marque (available online here, and here) contain his famous description of old Bundi palace:  

To give on paper any adequate idea of the Boondi-ki-Mahal is impossible. Jeypore Palace may be called the Versailles of India; Udaipur’s House of State is dwarfed by the hills round it and the spread of the Pichola Lake; Jodhpur’s House of Strife, grey towers on red rock, is the work of giants, but the Palace of Boondi, even in broad daylight, is such a Palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams — the work of goblins rather than of men. It is built into and out of the hillside, in gigantic terrace on terrace, and dominates the whole of the city. But a detailed description of it were useless. 

By the time Emily Hahn visited Bund in the 1950s, the royal family had all but abandoned the old palace and moved in to Phoolsagar which, built in the 1940s, had more modern comforts.  Hahn is an entertaining and witty guide to life inside the Rajah’s household, more so because of the wry perspective she gives on the women in the Rajah’s life and the ‘proper’ place of a woman during a tiger hunt…    

As well as being available on Amazon, Last Days of the Maharajahs is also available in the New Yorker’s archive or free online at the Internet Archive:

Emily Hahn had a long and prolific career as a journalist and author.  She wrote over 200 articles for the New Yorker over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those), and made her final contribution at the age of 96.  In addition, Hahn travelled widely and wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects including her extensive travels.  

Read more about Emily Hahn’s travels here on Travel Without Moving, more about her life in the New York Times obituary, here, or more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

Book: A Few Perfect Hours, Josh Neufeld

A Few Perfect Hours
by Josh Neufeld (Alternative Comics, 2004)

Home-keeping youth have ever homely wits…
I rather would entreat thy company
To see the wonders of he world abroad
Than, living dully sluggardized at home
Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness

Heeding Shakespeare’s words, Josh Neufeld and his girlfriend Sari, left the United States and went travelling together.  Over the course of a year and half they backpacked from Hong Kong, through South East Asia and the Balkans before stopping in Prague.

As Sari explains in her foreward:

The challenge of the backpacking odyssey is unique. Stripped of the normal scaffolding of life, we must narrate our own adventures to die them weight and to give ourselves form.  When we travel, we become both actor and storyteller, hero and scribe.

Neufeld narrates their story (with additional words from Sari) in the form of the graphic novel.  While A Few Perfect Hours covers some well trodden backpacker countries and experiences, Neufeld does so with warmth, originality and honesty.  

Along the way, the pair work as extras in a Singapore soap opera, confront their fears in a Thai cave, visit an off the beaten track organic farm, get an unexpected religious experience at a Buddhist festival, have an, almost, encounter with an ice cream salesman in Serbia and travel by train through Belgrade during 1993.

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While Neufeld may be the hero of his tales, he is not afraid to lay bare and share his own fears, misgivings and reactions which bring the stories to life, tinge them with reality and bring the personal to the insights he gains from his travelling experiences.  Part of A Few Perfect Hours‘ charm lies in the insights gained from the ‘small’ or everyday in the stories and also the travellers’ tips interspersed among them.  Meanwhile, the illustrations keep the tales fresh, bringing humour and immediacy to the scenes and adding detail and elements of fantasy.

Comics or graphic novels are not everyone but this is a nice collection, well complemented by Sari’s foreward.  A Few Perfect Hours is part of a growing body of graphic travel writing, a form which lends itself well to the genre.  As Eddie Campbell (author of From Hell) sums it up on the back cover:

The travel book has a tradition both grand and frivolous.  It’s a literary form that continues to welcome the embellishment of illustration long after fiction has expunged them, whether through photographs or the author’s own sketches of the sights seen. It has always looks to me, therefore, like a waiting challenge for the so-called comic book.   

A Few Perfect Hours was self-published with a grant from the Xeric Foundation.   Learn more about Neufeld and his work at www.joshcomix.com.

 

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: Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop

Brave New Burma, by Nic Dunlop

Dewi Lewis Publishing (2013) 

I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power.  

This is how Nic Dunlop explained his interest in Burma to BBC journalist Fergal Keane at the May 2013 launch of Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club in London.

A significant challenge for Dunlop in undertaking his quest was the difficulty of capturing life in Burma under a totalitarian regime:

For most visitors to Burma at that time, stories of slave labour and repression seemed at odds with the images they encountered: smiling people, exotic festivals and gleaming temples.  Burma was a mature totalitarian state, its operations to subtle for the casual observer to perceive… The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets.  The vey absence of the army was proof of its power.

How then does one capture the brutality of a military dictatorship when the army is not visible on the street?  Or record something so pervasive that it is almost imperceptible?

Dunlop did, through 20 years’ patient travel and photography.  The result is an impressive combination of photography and written journalism which, steering clear of cliches, lifts the lid on a secretive country where another reality lies beyond the sight of most observers.  Brave New Burma documents not only the country and its struggles but Dunlop’s own journey as a photographer and journalist as he seeks to uncover hidden stories about the reality of life in Burma.    
 

Dunlop tracks down those who have been forced from their homes, tortured and forced into labour before penetrating the military heart of the regime to observe the leaders up close shortly before protests by buddhist monks were brutally put down by the Tatmadaw in 2007.  

Brave New Burma is structured as a series of essays accompanied by photos, dealing in turn with Burma’s internal conflicts, the invisibility of the totalitarian regime, imprisonment, torture and forced labour and the military regime.  Brave New Burma is gripping, chilling and unflinching in its examination of the ethnic divisions and conflicts that have riven Burma and been exploited by the dictatorship, the plight of refugees and the humiliations, rapes, mutilations, psychological scars and privations inflicted on the country’s population.  

What makes Brave New Burma particularly powerful is its mixture of political and historical background interwoven with portraits and personal accounts from those he has interviewed, which make it an intimate and compassionate portrait of the country’s people.    

Brave New Burma is not just a record of a repressive regime that will hopefully soon be consigned to history books but also an excellent introduction to Burma and valuable for anyone wanting to gain an insight following last November’s historic elections. 

In the final chapter, Dunlop examines the possibility of change and potential freedom from the fear that pervades both civilian and military life.  Dunlop seems more hopeful than optimistic.  Avoiding the simplistic view of freedom versus a totalitarian regime, his view is nuanced and highlights the difficulties that will accompany real change in the country from ethnic tensions, the weight of expectation on Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to the risk of future exploitation as external forces eye economic opportunities in Burma.  It is perhaps for that reason that the last photo bears the cautious caption, ‘No end in sight’.

Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based, award winning photographer with photo agency Panos Pictures.  Panos specialises in global social issues, “recognising that photography is more than pictures on a page” and believing “in the photography of ideas…with the aim of interpreting rather than simply recording.” 

Watch Nic Dunlop introduce Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club launch in May 2013: 

Alternatively, listen to the event on Soundcloud or preview Brave New Burma on Panos Pictures’ website:

You can read some earlier articles and view some of Nic Dunlop’s photos at Prospect magazine, here, here and here

Book: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air
by Jon Krakauer

Published by Pan, 2011 (originally published in 1997)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill.  The trick is to get back down alive.”

Into Thin Air began life as a magazine article.  In 1996, Krakauer, an experienced climber, was sent by Outside Magazine to write an article about the commercialism of climbing on Mount Everest.  He was to join an all expenses paid party being led by experienced New Zealand guide, Rob Hall.  As it turned out, Krakauer was fortunate to return with his life after his party got caught in a storm on the day of their summit attempt and 12 people died.  Krakauer turned in his article for Outside but, as catharsis for survivor’s guilt, Krakauer interviewed those involved in the events and gathered together more information to write a book.

Into Thin Air deals with questions of drive, ambition and vanity, the commercialisation of climbing on Everest and questions about trust and loyalty.  It raises frank questions such as what climbers can expect from those who are on the mountain with them and the way the way that being a fee-paying client can change expectations and feelings of responsibility.  

He accepts that this account cannot be complete and acknowledges the difficulties inherent in piecing together the fragments, despite his extensive research.  However, although some questions are left unanswered, being a climber, Krakauer is able to help us start to understand climbing and climbers.   Krakauer deals with the physical and psychological aspects of climbing including the effect that lack of oxygen has at high altitude.  His insights help to understand the necessary drive (“in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die”), endurance (“the ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on”) and risk-taking (“this is an activity that idealises risk-taking”).  He is honest about the selfish aspects of climbing and climbers’ complex and varied motivations:

“We were a team in name only, I’d sadly come to realize…. We would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much. And I was no different.”  

Yet, despite his insights, it seems there are no firm answers here either:  “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility”.  

Dramatic and exciting, Into Thin Air reads like a blockbuster movie (unsurprisingly the events have been filmed twice).  Krakauer’s writing gives the events an immediacy and proximity.  There are moments in the book that made by palms clammy and that were genuinely emotional.  However, as Justine Burley’s review in the London Review of Books (£) noted, Into Thin Air is “admirably written” and  “free of mawkishness, blame or a prurient interest in death”.

Into Thin Air belongs with Herzog’s Annapurna or Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void in the climbing canon.  There are less sensational books about Everest and climbing available (Jan Morris’ Coronation Everest, numerous books by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, Feeding the Rat by Al Alvarez, Walter Bonatti’s The Mountains of My Life) but if you are in the mood for an adrenalin-filled adventure tale you could do a lot worse.  No wonder it makes the top 10 in National Geographic’s 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time alongside books such as Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World and Shackleton’s South and also features in World Hum’s 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time (although apparently on the strength of its high sales).

Have things on Everest changed since the 1996 tragedy?  The commercialisation of climbing on Everest has continued, people continue to die and rubbish continues to pile up (see this 2015 BBC article). As Krakauer noted:

To believe that dissecting the tragic events of 1996 in minute detail will actually reduce the future death rate in any meaningful way is wishful thinking. The urge to catalogue the myriad blunders in order to “learn from the mistakes” is for the most part an exercise in denial and self-deception.

Indeed, Michio Kakutani, in his review for the New York Times, written in the year following the tragedy,  noted:

Oddly enough, none of this appears to have dampened amateur interest in scaling Everest. In recent months, The New York Times has reported, demand for the 200 available spaces in the base camp has risen sharply, thanks in part to all the talk about the casualties claimed by the Big E last year.

Further reading can be found in Caroline Fraser’s review in the New York Review of Books (£) and Alastair Scott’s review for the New York Times in which he describes Into Thin Air as “a step-by-step account of how a diverse group of people try to conquer a mountain whose majesty is utterly dwarfed by the hardship required to ascend it.”  Not directly based on Krakauer’s book, the 1996 disaster on Everest have been made into a Hollywood film: 

https://vimeo.com/138192829

Krakauer himself is no fan of the film and in a recent interview with the LA Times declared:

“Everest is not real climbing. It’s rich people climbing. It’s a trophy on the wall, and they’re done…When I say I wish I’d never gone, I really mean that.”  

Book: Fado, by Andrzej Stasiuk

Fado
by Andrzej Stasiuk (translated by Bill Johnston)

Published by Dalkey Archive, (2006, trans 2009)

“To travel is to live.  Or in any case to live doubly, triply, multiple times.”

Andrjez Stasiuk was born in Poland in 1960.  After being expelled from school and joining the peace movement, Stasiuk was imprisoned for deserting from the army. 

After his release from prison, Stasiuk began writing, has authored more than 15 books of fiction, essays and travel writing.  In 2005 was awarded the NIKE award (an annual literary prize for the best book published in Polish) for his travel book On the Road to Babadag which was published in English in 2011. He lives away from Warsaw in a mountain village near the Polish border with Slovakia. 

Although translated into English before On the Road to Babadag, Fado was actually published in Polish afterwards.  

Fado (the titles refers to a melancholy style of Portuguese song), is a melancholy mediation on the themes of modernity and memory set against the parts of Europe bordering Poland.  Fado is lyrical and powerful and commands the attention from its  opening paragraphs which are reminiscent of the opening of Lynch’s Lost Highway:

“Best of all is night in a foreign country on the highway, because at those times foreignness extends across the entire earth and sweeps everyone up indiscriminately in its flow”

A series of essays rather than a continuing narrative travelogue (possibly because although Stasiuk likes to travel, he does not like to be away from for longer than three or so weeks), Fado is better read as a whole.

His themes are modernity, the past and memory and describes places where the past co-exists with the present and contrasting the lives played out in those places with the time in which those lives are lived.

He and a photographer friend stop take pictures of Romanian gypsies who “come from long ago when people needed much less” but were trying to live in the present and after they exact a price for the photos paid in cigarettes he observes “we had reduced their humanity to an exotic image, they limited ours to the economy of their own survival.”

The places Stasiuk takes us to or not ones we are familiar with:  Belgrade, the Carpathian Mountains, Pogradec and the Accursed Mountains in Albania, Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia and of course Poland.  

Stasiuk is drawn to places in the margins, places that seem like the end of he world or have dream like qualities, their reality “a little dulled at the edges, a little rounded”.   He shifts from Montenegrin resorts and their “tawdry imitation of the modern” Stasiuk to places where the past still exists and “only the cars moving along the highway remind us that it is the twenty-first century.”

There is at times an ethereal quality to Fado.  Driving through lands “inhabited by forgotten people leading inconspicuous lives” the countryside passes in a blur outside Stasiuk’s car window until he stops to fix his gaze on something and then his descriptions are vivid and his images potent.  From the Dante-es que description of gypsies living in an abandoned mine to describing the beauty in the colours and scenes of autumn in remote parts of Poland.

Written at a time when Central and Eastern European countries were joining the EU, Stasiuk’ examination of this mixing of East and West Europe and what each may mean to the other is captivating (“Yes, indeed, two hundred million new Europeans is a real challenge.  It ought to drive the sleep from people’s eyes and fill them with anxiety and joy, because what will happen next will resemble the discovery of a new continent.” and “Is it possible to merge two streams of history that have flowed separately alongside one another for so long.”).  Given current debates about immigration in Europe his observations still resonate.

Stasis is often compared to Jack Kerouac.   That is unsurprising given Stasiuk seems to invite such comparisons (“So then, all of this reminding myself, this sitting on my backside in the semi-darkness and constantly travelling backwards, this staring into memory’s rear view mirror, this lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road that I’m knocking out on my typewriter – at three-fifteen A.M”) but there is much more to him than that.

Despite his themes of memory, loss  and modernity, Stasiuk is examines the current situations of the countries he visits and also considers were they are going in terms of culture and identity.   In that sense, his work is vital and therefore indispensable to helping to understand countries with which many of us are only just becoming familiar. 

There is a biography of Stasiuk and his work at www.culture.pl.

 

 

 

 

 

Book & Photo Essay: Palaces of Memory – India’s Coffee Houses

Palaces of Memory
by Stuart Freedman with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri

Published by Dewi Lewis (2015)

“The air of lassitude in these places, the stains on the table, are as important to the ‘historical attitude’ of the coffee drinker as the coffee itself.”

Stuart Freedman is a photographer and writer based between London and New Delhi whose work over he last 20 years has been published in major outlets around the world. 

This book, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is in Freedman’s words “a love letter” to the Indian Coffee House, a national network of cafes across India owned by their workers.  (Stuart’s Kickstart funding was to meet the costs of publishing a limited edition hardcover book rather than travel to take the photos).

Stuart’s attachment to the coffee houses began when he first started visiting India.  He describes them as a “refuge” and “a respite from the noise and movement of a difficult but fascinating city” and also a reminder of the : 

Suddenly, I felt more at home in a strange city. When I travelled through the country, I sought them out. As a young journalist, the Coffee Houses taught me to see similarity not difference: that people were the same the world over and that was a lesson to be cherished.

Passing time in these coffee houses, speaking with strangers and observing other customers, enabled Freedman to experience an India “far away from the stereotypes of both poverty and exotica”.

An interesting essay on Freedman’s website describes how the history of the coffee houses is more than about just coffee and how they were a social meeting place, an ‘adda’ – “a specifically Bengali meeting place: full of conversation and discussion” – a home from home where politics and culture were discussed.

Freedman also describes how the history of the coffee houses reveals the political and economic history of India from the opening of the earliest coffee houses in Kolkata and Madras during the years of British rule, through to Indian independence and the 1960s and 70s when the coffee house “was like a kitchen of ideas just waiting to be cooked”. Latterly, as Indian economic fortunes have changed, India is becoming more familiar with a different type of coffee house which does not encourage is customers to gather, sit and chat for long periods although the coffee houses it seems are continuing to survive, if not thrive.  

Chaudhuri’s foreword to the book is available online at The Telegraph of India.  In it he considers the shabbiness of the coffee houses, with their plastic or folding chairs and formica or wooden tables.  He cautions against assuming they reflect underdevelopment and suggests they reflect “a strategically cultivated ethos” or “cult of austerity” borne out of “the morality of Nehruvian socialism and Gandhi austerity”.  The unselfconscious simplicity of the coffee houses thereby reflecting a modernist aesthetic or ‘historical attitude’ –  “history not as knowledge, information, and fact, but as an assignation of meaning to shabbiness” – in the same way that “a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains”.

A gallery of images from Freedman’s book can be viewed on his website while this BBC report by Howard Johnson gives an insight into the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata:

Book: No Hurry to Get Home, Emily Hahn

No Hurry to Get Home
by Emily Hahn

Published by Open Road Media (2014) 

“The old euphoria of the traveller, a sensation I’d almost forgotten in the forest, was stealing over me—that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating.”

“Lazy, that’s your trouble” announced Emily Hahn’s surveying partner while she was studying engineering.  This memoir, however, reveals that Hahn was anything but.
 

No Hurry to Get Home opens with chapters focussing on Hahn’s childhood years.  Hahn reveals that at an early age the urge to get away was manifested itself in running away from home, probably as a result of a “hangover” from reading books with protagonists who “scorned the stale air of indoors”. 

Following Hahn from this early experience through her upbringing in St Louis and Chicago in the first two decades of the 20th century, we encounter a father who was careful to ensure that his daughters conversations about clothes remained practical and never became vanity and sisters who were competitive and poached boyfriends.  Hahn moves on to encounter the male chauvinist environment of engineering school and the joys of drinking homemade gin during Prohibition.  

Hahn’s first real travel experience was a road trip heading West across the States in a Model T Ford in 1924 when such a journey involved “virtuous, healthy discomfort” because of the lack of roadside services and “people still behaved as if motoring was a passing fad.”  The trip changed Hahn who became increasingly restless and recalled thinking:

It was awful to think of everybody in that big place getting up at the same time every morning, taking the same bus or streetcar to work, doing the same things every day at the office. Where in the world were people who did things simply because they wanted to—because they were interested? Did no one ever strike out along new paths? 

Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic inspired Hahn to new challenges and she quit work and headed West again to become a Harvey Girl.

 Emily_Hahn portrait

Subsequent chapters follow Hahn around the world as she travels to the UK and Africa before heading to Japan and China, where she stayed for 8 years and was at the time of the Japanese invasion and the first part of the Second World War before she headed back to the US.   

Hahn is humorous and candid without being sentimental as she encounters the Kurtz-like anthropologist, Stewart, in the Belgian Congo, makes her way overland to Lake Kivu with a party of bearers, is confronted by racism in Dar es Salaam and recounts a Japanese air raid while she was in China.   In one of the best known essays, The Big Smoke, Hahn recounts her experiences with opium (“I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it”).  

Throughout, Hahn reveals common travellers’ preoccupations: communicating with home, the joy of first travel, conversations with other travellers, doubts about the suitability of traveling companions, concerns about the creeping commercialisation of popular travel destinations and the nuisance travellers can be to their families and friends when they return from travels full of anecdotes and extravagant habits. 

No Hurry to Get Home was originally published as Times and Places in 1970.  Originally intended to be an autobiography, the introduction records how Hahn’s enthusiasm for the project waned as she became preoccupied with new projects but had spent the advance.  

The end result became an anthology of articles which had been published in the New Yorker, the magazine to which Hahn contributed over a period of 70 years (as a staff writer for more than 40 of those).  The chapters in No Hurry are therefore stand alone which makes it an an ideal collection to dip in and out of.    

Hahn’s surveying partner at engineering school might have perceived recycling previously published pieces as a further example of laziness.  That, however, would be grossly unfair.  During her prolific career, Hahn wrote more than 50 books on a variety of subjects and made her final contribution to the New Yorker at the age of 96.  Selecting previously published pieces was simply a way of meeting a commitment.  In many ways, a memoir made up of pieces published in the magazine with which Hahn was linked throughout her professional life is a fitting testament and an ideal introduction to Hahn’s life and travels.  

The New York Times obituary of Emily Hahn is here.  Read more of Emily Hahn’s work in the New Yorker archives, here

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).

Peter_Fleming_pipe<

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: Laurie Lee on foot through Spain

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
by Laurie Lee

Published by Penguin (1969)

“Go where you will. It’s all yours.
You asked for it. It’s up to you now.
You’re on your own, and nobody’s going to stop you.”

Laurie Lee’s account of his journey through England and across Spain in the 1930s is a classic and makes the top 20 in World Hum’s list of most celebrated travel books as well as The Telegraph’s top 20 travel books of all time. 

Following the success of his childhood memoir, Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee was a best selling author as well as a poet, musician, artist and scriptwriter by the time As I Walked Out was published in 1969 as the second part of his autobiographical trilogy.  

In an interview with Phillip Oakes for the Sunday Times in 1969, Lee commented:

If you’ve written one reasonably good book, why try to follow on? There’s no real point. You’re not proving anything. The only argument for it is that what I have to write seems to fall naturally into a trilogy. Childhood, then discovering Spain, then the civil war. (published in the Sunday Times on 30 May 2010)

As Robert Macfarlane noted In an article for the Guardian in 2014, there are similarities between As I Walked Out and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts.   Both journeys began within a year or so of each other, 1934 and 1933, respectively.  War awaited both authors at the end of their experiences and both accounts were published later in the authors’ lives; As I Walked Out in 1969 with Time of Gifts following in 1977.

In As I Walked Out, Lee describes how he left his village of Slad in Gloucestershire to busk his way along England’s south coast before stopping to work in London.  After several months in London, Lee departed for Vigo in Spain where he began a six month journey on foot across the plains and sierras to Madrid and then on to Andalusia before reaching Almunecar as the storm of the Civil War was about to break.

In its review of As I Walked Out in 1970, the English Journal concluded that “This is a book for an adolescent its itchy feet and a bent for vicarious living” (English Journal, 1 May 1970). 

In a sense that is fair.  Writing these memoirs was, in Lee’s words, “a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations”.  What he achieves is a vivid evocation of youth, loss of innocence and youthful travel.  Lee’s style is poetic but eloquent and economical rather than florid or ornate.  His phrases are well turned and he uses striking imagery.  

Lee recalls what it was like to be young, to be in no hurry and feel no pressure (“never in my life had I felt so fat with time”).  He remembers his youthful energy and physical strength and describes them in a way that only someone who has started to miss them could.

Lee also captures the pleasures of travel: the thrill of waking up in a place which holds no memories and has an unfamiliar language and likening it to being reborn; the unease of arriving somewhere at night; the unexpected moments which make one think of and miss home; the innocent ignorance and the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having no plan but choosing one’s own path and making a journey happen.

At the centre of this is Lee the wandering violinist, the “prince of the road, the lone ranger developing a “taste for the vanity of solitude”, and it never occurring to him that others may have done this before him.

By the time As I Walked Out was published, Lee’s Spain was already changing.  Retracing his journey for the BBC in the 1960s he lamented:  

I remember Segovia as a place of ragged almost oriental poverty, where a stranger’s face was a matter of unusual interest. Tourism has changed all that.  But the old relationship between host and visitor has been corrupted and cheapened.  Tourism always corrupts and no country can stand against it. 
Lee realised how fortunate he had been, reflecting in the book that:

I was a young man whose time coincided with the last years of peace, and so was perhaps luckier than any generation since.  Europe at least was wide open, a place of casual frontiers, few questions and almost no travellers.   

Laurie Lee and As I Walked Out were the subject of an episode of Travellers’ Century, a BBC Four documentary series presented by Benedict Allen:

You can also hear Laurie Lee reading an extract from the book describing life and lunchtime in Madrid here or read how his journey has inspired others to make the same walk, here, here and most recently, P D Murphy’s As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee.

As I Walked Out One Midsummers Morning is also available in ebook format as part of Red Sky at Sunrise, which contains all there instalments of Laurie Lee’s autobiography:


Book: Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson

Published by Black Swan 

Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot.

Bill Bryson was (and probably still is) the UK’s best selling non-fiction author ever, largely a result of his million-plus selling travelogue, Notes from a Small Island which was published in the UK in 1996.

A Walk in the Woods was Bryson’s 1998 follow up.  Having lived in the UK for 20 years, Bryson moved back to the US in 1995.  Living close the to the Appalachian Trail, Bryson became curious about the hiking route which runs for over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and “rashly” informed his family, friends and publisher that he intended to hike it.  Enlisting an old friend, ‘Katz’, to join him, the pair set out and the book is the result of their adventures.  

Bryson has subsequently said of hiking that “nothing happens. You just put one foot in front of the other. You might have a great day, but it’s not an interesting thing to write about, let alone read”.  It would be easy to share this sentiment (“A book about hiking the Appalachian Trail?… Excuse me while I watch some paint dry, or curl up with a good phone directory”).

A Walk in the Woods is not just about the Trail and nature.  Neither is it an opportunity for Bryson to “serve up his psyche on a platter” nor a philosophical enquiry into the outdoors.  Bryson makes this clear early on when he tells us why he wanted to hike the Trail:

I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods”.

Contrast this with the noble sentiments in Thoreau’s Walden

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. (the full quote is here

It is hard not to see Bryson’s approach as a direct riposte (especially as he refers elsewhere to Thoreau as “inestimably priggish and tiresome”).

A Walk in the Woods is certainly no Walden and neither is it a ‘hairy chested’ adventure book.  But that does not matter.  As Dwight Garner noted in his New York Times review: “You don’t sign on with Bryson’s big adventure because you expect him to show you how hairy-chested he can be. You sign on because he’s one of the most engaging cupcakes around.”

That is just what A Walk in the Woods is.  An engaging, funny account of one man’s attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail and everything that goes with it:  the physical privations, irritations with Katz, the annoyances, the fears and angsts, the history of the trail, its ecology, insights and reflections on the nature of their adventure and how it relates to everyday life, all recounted with a dry sense of humour and sufficient pace and one liners.  A Walk in the Woods is so complete an experience it is almost an alternative to doing it yourself and “you don’t even have to take a step”.

A Walk in the Woods has now been turned into a film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte: