Book: Rolf Potts on being a vagabond

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts 

Published by Villard Books (2003)

“Time is your truest form of wealth.

There is no shortage of available books and blogs dispensing advice on how to break free from daily routine and travel the world on a shoestring.  The difference with Vagabonding is that it is worth reading. And re-reading.      

Rolf Potts is a widely published and highly regarded travel writer.  He started writing a regular column with Salon.com at the end of the ’90s and has since written for most (if not all) major travel publications and has published two books: Vagabonding, is the first, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, a collection of essays and the second.  

As Potts playfully recognises, there is no getting away from the fact that Vagabonding is really a form of self help book.  Although it might claim to be aimed at those who are unsure how to find the time freedom and money to travel for long periods there is, however, plenty in Vagabonding for seasoned travellers. 

Vagabonding sets out to dispel several myths about travel, the main one being that you are not too poor to travel.  It does this not by explaining how you can become rich enough to travel the world in luxury.  Instead, it aims to demonstrate how, to realise the dream of travelling for long periods of time, adjusting our lives to utilise our time better is more important than having a trust fund or huge pots of money.  

Potts is clearly passionate and serious about long term travel as a deliberate choice about how to live one’s life.  Thoreau, one of Potts’ literary heroes, would approve:

True and sincere travelling is no pastime but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.

Vagabonding can assist with that probationary period.  Vagabonding starts at home in every sense and, with the first section of the book devoted to pre-trip matters, Vagabonding helps point the way showing how the vagabonding mindset begins way before the trip from working to raise the funds, quitting work and simplifying our lives.  Potts usefully points out that pre-trip periods can be spent usefully working out why it is that we want to go, what we are looking for from our trips and what kind of traveller we want to be once we set out.  

Potts takes us through his personal philosophy of travel showing that vagabonding is not simply a consumer option, accessory, trend or something done out of obligation; nor is it a political statement, social gesture or moral high ground.  It is a personal act requiring commitment and realignment of priorities.  

Potts draws on an impressive variety of sources to illustrate his ideas, as well as to inspire and confront myths that might otherwise hold us back.  From ancient Sanskrit poetry, the teachings of the Upanishads, 19th century transcendentalists such as Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, Islamic authors and a whole range of 20th century authors, poets and travel writers as well as the voices of contemporary travel bloggers, the sheer variety of sources alone makes Vagabonding an interesting reading and worth re-visiting.   The aim of Vagabonding seems to echo that behind Sir Francis Galton’s 1855 work (although the two are very different in content):

by collecting the scattered experiences of many such persons in various circumstances, collating them, examining into their principles, and deducing from them what might fairly be called an “Art of Travel.”  

In the section On the Road, Potts’ travel experiences come into their own.  Vagabonding contains a wealth of practical advice covering issues such as  health while travelling, cross cultural interaction, what to expect when setting out travelling, and advice on socially and environmentally responsible travel.  It also helps to address angst at the difficulty of making choices in about places to visit, travellers’ ennui, forming good travel ‘habits’,  and how to deal with pitfalls and annoyances on (and off) the road.  

Despite the level of detail and the wide range of on and offline resources and tip sheets contained in Vagabonding, no advice manual can be 100% comprehensive; every seasoned traveller could add their own tips and in any event, as Potts notes, “neophyte blunders” are just part of the experience.  Nevertheless there is plenty here for anyone new to travel to get started and more than enough advice to remind more seasoned travellers of their own experiences.  It had me wistfully thinking about my own travels and itching to start another journey.  

One of the charms of Vagabonding is that Potts approaches all of this without being condescending, retaining a modesty and humility when talking about his own experiences and with a dry sense of humour, including taking the time for a side swipe at the “pseudo-counter-culture” of ‘anti-tourists’ which many ‘independent’ travellers seem keen to embrace.  

Vagabonding is something of a contemporary classic and is now in at least its tenth reprint (although Potts modestly acknowledges that the print runs are not large).  At the start of Vagabonding, Potts recalls finding a book by Ed Buryn in a used bookstore in Tel Aviv that helped him consolidate and affirm his own ideas about travel.   Should Vagabonding ever go out of print, I can’t help feeling that one day, somebody else will start a book about long term travel with a similar anecdote about how somewhere, in a second hand bookshop they found a book by this guy called Rolf Potts…    

Watch Rolf’s DO lecture on his vagabonding philosophy: 

You can listen to Rolf in conversation with Christine Maxfield on the Compassmag podcast, When in Roam, here or read Frank Bures’ profile of Rolf for Poets & Writers here

Check out Rolf Potts’ website at www.rolfpotts.com. 

Book: The Bridge by Geert Mak

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

Published by Vintage (2009) 

Without the bridge you cannot know the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: 80 days around the world with Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Back in the USSR, Maclean & Danziger

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

Published by Unbound (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book: Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities

Fleming Thrilling CitiesThrilling Cities by Ian Fleming

Vintage (with an introduction by Jan Morris)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Hopkirk – Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk John Murray

Among the oasis dwellers of the Taklamakan, strange legends of ancient towns lying buried beneath the sands had been passed down from grandfather to grandson for as long as anyone could remember.

Peter Hopkirk wrote several books about Central Asia, focussing on what Richard Bernstein of the New York Times called “the confrontation of Eastern exoticism with Western Imperial ambition” and has “made a career out of the historical adventures of Europeans in Central and South Asia.”

Hopkirk passed away last year, age 83, and in its obituary (reproduced on the Marlburian Club website), The Times newspaper paid tribute by noting that “Hopkirk was no armchair historian. He was an intrepid traveler who adeptly shrugged off the region’s ever-watchful authorities to piece together his rip-roaring histories.”  So, even though Foreign Devils is strictly more history than travel it nonetheless deserves inclusion; Hopkirk travelled widely in the regions about which he writes and brings the tales to life using contemporary travel narratives.

Foreign Devils was published in 1980 and was the first of Hopkirk’s six books about Central Asia. It recounts the explorations and adventures of British, Swedish German, French, American and Japanese archaeologists in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang province in modern China) at the end of the 19th and first part of the 20th century.

These archaeologists were searching for the cities, monasteries, grottos and stupas which had grown up along the Silk Road during its first 800 or so years from the time of the Han dynasty.  An immense network of trade routes stretching thousands of miles between the Mediterranean and China along which precious goods such as silk, gold and ivory were carried, the Silk Road gave birth to many oasis towns.  Ideas, as well as goods were carried along the Silk Road, including Buddhism which spread along the trade routes from North West India, over the mountain passes and into Central Asia where it flourished and with it, art and learning.

However, as trade along the Silk Road declined, so too did its oasis cities and over the years, they fell into obscurity and ruin.

Their imagination fired by the accounts of Chinese travellers such as Fu-Hsien in the 5th century and 7th century monk Hsuan-tsang, these predominantly European archaeologists and explorers set off to re-discover cities which had been lost for centuries and lay buried in Central Asia’s desert sands.  Hopkirk traces the passions, obsessions and adventures adventures of Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein, Albert Von Le Coq, Paul Pelliott, Langdon Lownes and Japan’s Count Otani as they set out at great personal risk and raced one another to redicover hidden Buddhist cities.  

The focus of their efforts was the vast Taklamakan desert which Sven Hedin called “the worst and most dangerous desert in the world” and access to which access is restricted on three sides by mountains (Tian Shan to the north, the Pamir to the west, and the Karakoram and Kun Lun to the south) and by the Lop and Gobi deserts on the fourth. 

In an engaging, exciting and interesting read, Hopkirk tells of the treasures that they found and how literally tonnes of manuscripts, frescoes and statues were removed before the Chinese authorities finally put a stop to the removal of antiquities.
This books is the perfect introduction to a remote and difficult to visit area and Hopkirk includes general introductions to the Silk Road and the cities of the Taklamakan; which is useful, if like me, you have no previous knowledge and the region is a bit of a blank on the map.   This book brings the region to life.

Foreign Devils left me longing to drop everything and head straight out of the door in Hopkirk’s footsteps to see the region for myself and wanting to read more about the area and its history.  Fortunately, many of the first hand accounts on which Hopkirk’s book is based are available online for free in a variety of formats, for example, those by Sven Hedin (Through Asia, volume 1 and volume 2) and Sir Aurel Stein (Sand Buried Ruins of Khotan).

Book: Overland to Singpore by Landrover, Tim Slessor

First Overland SlessorFirst Overland: London – Singapore by Landrover by Tim Slessor
Signal Books Ltd, 2005

 

 The good road ended like all good roads do
In 1955, six Oxford and Cambridge graduates, confident “almost to the point of arrogance” set out on an 18,000 mile journey from London to Singapore which lasted just over 6 months.
Styling themselves the The Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition (only one of the team was in fact an Oxford graduate), they set off in two factory fresh vehicles provided by Landrover, with money sufficient to buy a clockwork camera and some film provided by the BBC (thanks to Sir David Attenborough, producer in charge of he BBC’s Exploration Unit at the time) and sponsorship from 8 other firms (including a distiller, cigarette manufacturer and Brook Bond tea).
They went because they wanted to, explains Tim Slessor in his preface.  Although he is not drawn into trying to explain or justify the expedition more deeply he points out that their motives were not simply superficial.  No doubt with 6 participants there were a variety of reasons and motives but they could hardly be blamed if the opportunity to turn names on maps into places they had seen and to undertake an epic overland journey not previously completed were not reasons enough.
The film Sir David Attenborough provided them with was put to good use and was turned into three programmes broadcast on the BBC after the expedition returned.  Surviving  footage gives a glimpse of the expedition:
It is hard not too look at the footage and see that, in many respects they travelled through a different world.  Two years before they set off, Hilary and Tensing had summited Everest.  Only months after they completed their outward journey, Nasser had renationalised the Suez Canal and by the time they had returned home, Britain had launched its invasion of Egypt.  Within another couple of years Lebanon and Iraq were both engulfed by civil war.
Making their the post war period, they witnessed the closing  They are assisted on their way by representatives of the Brook Bond tea company  Within months of  different to a world As they prepare in Calcutta and set off from Assam into Burma along the Stilwell road and into naga territory there is a sense of the real adventure beginning, recalling the importance of the area in WWII as they listened to radio reports when they wee young and heads no doubt full of reports if Hunt/Hillary Everest expedition they call their last stop in India ‘base camp’ and in their last telegram home before setting off use a code word in the manner of James Morris reporting to london that Hilary had successfully conquered Everests summit.

 

 

 

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Book: New Great Game, Kleveman

The New Great Game by Lutz Kleveman
Atlantic Books, 2004

Kleveman is a German born journalist who from 1997 to 2007 reported on conflicts in places such as the Balkans, West AfricaCentral Asia and the Caucasus.

Kleveman’s book updates and explores the ‘Great Game’, played by Russia and the British in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in pursuit of their respective imperial goals in the 19th century and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim.

Russia still features as a main player in the New Great Game and is joined by the US, Iran, China and the countries of Central Asia and the Causcasus.  The prizes in this game are the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.

The New Great Game is a compelling piece of reportage.  Having driven round the Balkans in 1999-2000 in an old Citroen CX25 reporting on the ongoing ethnic conflict and the revolution against the Milosevic regime and also reporting on blood diamonds, child soldiers and oil in West Africa, Kleveman’s attention turned to the Caucasus.  So, in August 2001, Kleveman set out from Berlin on a road trp to Baku in Azerbaijan (again in a Citroen CX25).

Prevented from entering Chechnya by Russian security services, Kleveman was “after five days of interrogation (and heavy vodka-drinking) […] expelled from Russia on the fateful day of September 11, 2011.”  He eventually managed to reach Baku by train where he became increasingly interested in Caucasus oil politics.

Shortly afterwards, after a visit to Uzbekistan during the US led Afghan war, Kleveman became “hooked” on Central Asia.

According to his website, he then spent most of 2002 “zigzagging the region and meeting with the principal actors of the New Great Game about oil and pipelines: Kazakh oil barons, US generals, Russian diplomats, Afghan warlords.”  His travels and research took him through Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia, Iran and arose the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, the deserts and steppe of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan before heading to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and Krygystan and finally to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In the New Great Game, Kleveman argues (for summaries see here…and here) that the Caucasus and Central Asia are the focus of a struggle for the gas and oil reserves of the Caspian Sea.  As known reserves of fossil fuels elsewhere in the world dwindle while demand for them soars, the prospect of new reserves outside of OPEC’s influence area a truly valuable prize.  The break up of the Soviet Union, coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of oil and gas in the Caspian region has therefore given the US an unprecedented opportunity to court the former Soviet republics to attempt to secure access to these reserves and so lessen its dependence on OPEC oil supplies.

As the Caspian is landlocked, transporting the oil and gas to the sea so that it can be shipped to markets around the world is a major challenge.  This requires the construction of thousand mile pipelines to the Mediterranean or Indian Ocean if a route through Russia is to be avoided.  As any pipeline must therefore go though either Iran or former Soviet republics (regarded by Russia as still being within its sphere of influence), Kleveman reports that the various countries of the region are jostling to accommodate the pipelines and to reap the rewards of the transit fees and to guarantee their independence from Russia.  Add to this mix the oil thirsty countries vying to secure access to the reserves and it becomes apparent that the competition in this game is fierce and the stakes high as the players make their moves and countermoves.

Kleveman’s book sweeps across the region providing a masterly overview of the ‘New Great Game’ and its complexities.  Kleveman puts himself at considerable risk to obtain his interviews and is often than not rewarded for those risks.  The characters he meets are larger than life with extraordinary stories to tell that bring to life the region, its history and its turbulent present.  More reportage rather than a ‘classic’ travel narrative, it is nonetheless Kleveman’s travel throughout the region and the on the spot interviews which the give the book its detail and immediacy and prevent it from being simply a book about oil and gas geopolitics (examples of photos taken on his travels are on his website).

Now several years old, it would be interesting to know what the current state of play in the New Great Game is.  However, although the pieces may have moved, The New Great Game is still a fascinating portrait of a region and a snapshot of how the board looked at the time the book was written.

Book: Kapuscinksi’s Travels with Herodotus

Kapuscinski - Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Penguin Books

“A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of the most celebrated and controversial journalists and authors of the second half of the last century.   Famous for his books on Ethiopia, Iran and Russia, it seems impossible to give an account of his long career without repeating that he had witnessed 27 coups and revolutions. 

Kapuscinski died in 2007 and Travels with Herodotus was his final book.  In Travels, we encounter Kapuscinski in Cold War Poland as a young journalist for whom the outside world was a fairy-tale.  Before his first foreign assignment to India, the young Kapuscinski is given a copy of The Histories by his editor.    

So begins a journey following Kapuscinski’s own travels as he reports from around the globe intertwined with his own pursuit of Herodotus through the pages of The Histories.  For KapuscinskiHerodotus becomes part companion and part patron saint of foreign correspondents through whom Kapuscinski articulates/formulates his own theory of reportage by celebrating Herodotus’ spirit of inquiry.

Giving the keynote speech at the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in 2003, Kapuscinski hailed Herodotus as “my first reporter, our father and master, the forerunner of a genre” and The Histories as an “exemplary specimen of reportage” in which the three sources of reportage could be found: travel, people and the reporter’s homework (“reading what has been written and endures in texts, inscriptions, or graphic symbols”).

This last source is important for Kapuscinski as it “shows us how to be investigative and precise”.  Kapuscinski notes that Herodotus was well-read and that “he also deciphered inscriptions and symbols on temples and town walls.  Everything was important, potentially able to reveal a message or a new meaning”

Returning from his first foreign assignment to India, Kapuscinski recalls that he “returned from this journey, embarrassed at how ill-read [he] was” and through this “failure” set about reading voraciously about the places he was to visit realising that he needed to prepare “thoroughly and at length for such an encounter”:

With each new title I read, I felt as if I were undertaking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew.  These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one.  I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs.  What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image etc, something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.”

In his preparation and reading Kapuscinski was able to experience a more layered and multidimensional journey and so reveals an attraction of reading travel literature – to supplement the physical journey and to provide the mental tools to unlock meanings and messages where mere observation may not succeed.

This thorough preparation may also have fuelled Kapuscinski’s “literary reportage” for which his books have fuelled controversy.  

Kapuscisnki made no secret of the fact that he found the language of conventional journalism  to be inadequate “when confronting the rich, varied, colourful, ineffable reality of [third world] cultures, customs and beliefs.”  

In an interview with Bill Buford for Granta in 1987, Kapuscinski explained that “It’s not that the story is not getting expressed: It’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town; the smell; the thousands and thousands of elements that are part of the events you read about in 600 words of your morning paper.”

To avoid areas of reality being rendered “beyond the sphere of description”, Kapuscinski unapologetically “blurred genres”, taking as his cue Capote, Mailer and  Garcia Marquez, whose work he noted “straddles the border of fiction and press chronicle”.   The result, “is the creative result of a combination of two different manners and techniques of communicating and describing”.  

Kapuscinski has been criticised for his lack of accuracy.  For some, his writing was “tinged with magical realism”, while for others he was just making things up.  

This was not just carelessness.  Kapuscinski kept two note books (whether metaphorically or literally); one for his journalism and the other for his literary reportage and he was amused by critical complaints of his work: 

Kapuscinski never mentions dates, Kapuscinski never gives us the name of the minister, he has forgotten the order of events.  All that, of course, is exactly what I avoid.  If those are the questions that you want answered, you can visit your local library, where you will find everything you need:  the newspapers of the time, the reference books, a dictionary.”

Although writing where “descriptions of real events, true stories and accidents are supplemented with the writer’s personal opinions and reactions, and often with fictional asides to add colour; with the techniques and manners of fiction” may not be regarded as “straight journalism”, it can make great travel writing.  

Paradoxically, however, despite praising Herodutus’ inquiring style and precision in Travels, the book’s central conceit may just be a literary device rather than biographical fact.  It has been noted that one will search in vain for references to Herodotus elsewhere in Kapuscinski’s work, which could be considered odd if Herodotus had been Kapuscinski’s life long companion and mentor (Bissell).   

Sara Wheeler’s review of Travels with Herodotus for the Guardian is here.  Tom Bissell’s New York Times review is here, while Tahir Shah’s review for the Washington Post is here, and Jason Burke’s for the Literary Review is here.

For an in-depth discussion of Kapuscinski’s work and where reportage ends and literature begins featuring Kapuscinski’s biographer, Artur Domoslawski, at a Frontline Club event, see here:

Book: “Exterminate all the brutes”

Lindqvist Saharan JourneyExterminate all the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist

Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book: Barbara Greene, Too Late to Turn Back

Too Late to Turn Back, Barbara GreeneLate to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia
by Barbara Greene (with an introduction by Paul Theroux)

published by the Travel Library

Too Late to Turn Back (also published as Land Benighted) is Barbara Greene’s account of her trek with her cousin, Graham Greene, through the Liberian bush in 1935.

From that adventure, Graham Greene produced Journey Without Maps.  Barbara’s account, to borrow from Paul Theroux, is however “quite a different pair of shoes”.

The difference between Graham and Barbara’s accounts can be characterised by the books they took with them to Liberia.  While Graham took Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and produced the darker more introspective Journey Without Maps, Barbara travelled with Saki and Somerset Maugham and produced a more accessible, vivacious travelogue.

While Too Late to Turn Back is considered valuable as a companion piece to Journey Without Maps and as a portrait of Graham Greene, there is, along side the self-effacement and modesty of its author, much more to Too Late to Turn Back.

Barbara Greene was 23 years old when, having been “merrily drinking champagne”, she met her cousin Graham at the wedding reception of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) (Although this article suggests that Barbara may have disguised her real age).

Greene’s plans for his Liberian adventure were already well advanced and, because everyone else had refused, Greene asked his cousin Barbara if she would accompany him. Barbara promptly agreed although she “had no clear idea of where he was going to”.

Both Graham and Barbara were later to recall the rashness of their decision to travel to Liberia.  Barbara described them both as being “two innocents” whose “ignorance was abysmal”.  Regretting her “champagne decision”, Barbara hoped her father would forbid her from making the journey but, to her surprise, found that he approved and so, within a fortnight, they were on their way.

As Barbara later acknowledged, it was “unusual then for young girls to adventure off into the wilds”, but “adventure off” she did and what follows in Too Late to Turn Back is the account of a young woman from a privileged existence who had admitted to enjoying her creature comforts roughing it through the African bush.  

As a travelling companion, Graham Greene was complimentary about Barbara, describing her in Ways of Escape as being “as good a companion as the circumstances allowed”.  He also recalled that she left all the decisions to him and never criticised when he made the wrong one.  An arduous journey is likely to strain even the closest of relationships of friendships and theirs was no exception.  Graham noted that, towards the end of the trip they would “lapse into long silences” but found this “infinitely preferable” to raised voices.  Barbara recalled many years later that they “never quarrelled, not once” and also that, although she had not, at any time, been the least bit helpful she “never, never complained”.

This last detail is a telling one.  Despite the seemingly carefree manner of her departure and references to the Savoy Grill and her privileged life in London, Barbara must have had considerable pluck to undertake a journey on foot through the West African bush as a lone woman with a cousin she regarded only as an “acquaintance” and an entourage of 29 carriers, cooks and guides.  They faced many hardships during their trek and Graham’s health progressively worsened prompting Barbara to fear he may die.

Although the book is the sort of travelogue that her cousin was keen to avoid writing, and despite the journey’s hardships Barbara’s account is engaging, revealing small details (such as Graham’s slipping down socks) which lend the narrative intimacy, warmth and humour. She is overly modest, although genuinely so and displays respect and admiration for her cousin, particularly over his handling of the carriers as well as for his presence, intelligence and intellect.  (At one point,  Greene admonishes Barbara over a pair of shorts she was wearing.  Barbara doesn’t repeat his words but, chastened, simply records that Graham “told me with all wealth of phrase at his command exactly what I looked like in them. It was worse than I imagined and hurriedly and humbly I gave the shorts to Laminah.”)

Theroux, in his 1981 introduction notes that Barbara changes during her journey from “scatty socialite” to “hardy and courageous”.  He notes her modesty, dignity, bravery and loyalty and suggests that her transformation shows that “however lighthearted a departure is, if the traveller is generous, observant and dedicated to the trip, the traveller will be changed.

Barbara later confessed to being unsure of how much the journey changed her although  admitted it must have done unconsciously.  She thought that managing “to stick through all difficulties to the end” showed “no particular merit” on her part as they had reached the point of no return early in their trip.  Although probably turn to a certain extent, one senses that this is more modesty and self effacement.

Unlike her cousin, Barbara never returned to Africa.  Remembering the trip in later life, Barbara identified the treasure that she brought back from their Liberian journey as being one that she kept in her heart: “a dream of pure beauty and peace, a vision of moonlit villages in the jungle, friendly people dancing to the twang of a native harp and the beat of a drum , simplicity where material values were of no account and where understanding could be reached without words.”

In Ways of Escape, Graham later stated that Barbara writing her book was the one thing in which she had disappointed him.  He had been so busy with his own notes that he had not even noticed that Barbara was making her own.  Greene was, however, grateful that Barbara had at least waited until a few years after his own had been published.  In fact, Barbara never meant for her book to be published and had only re-written her notes so that she had something to read to her father when he became ill.

Originally published as Land Benighted in 1938, Barbara’s account was reprinted in 1981 with a new forward by her and with an introduction by Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print but second hand copies can be found online.

Book: Labels by Evelyn Waugh

Labels: A Mediterranean Journal (1929) by Evelyn Waugh

Published by Penguin Following a brief visit to Athens in 1927, Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: “The truth is that I do not really like being abroad much. I want to see as much as I can this holiday and shut myself for the rest of my life in the British Isles” (Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.  He may not have enjoyed “abroad” but Waugh did not remain shut in the British Isles for long. Despite insisting that he had no aspiration to be a great traveler and was no adventurer, twenty years later Waugh was able to look back and state: “From 1928 until 1937 I had no fixed home and no possessions which would not conveniently go on a porter’s barrow. I travelled continuously, in England and abroad… It is fortunate that he did as, from his travels in this period, Waugh produced several travel books of which Labels: A Mediterranean Journal, was the first.   Labels recounts Waugh’s journey around the Mediterranean by Norwegian cruise ship in 1929, the same year same year in which Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all that, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front were published. In a 1962 interview with the Paris Review, Waugh was dismissive both of the journey (“I went through a form of marriage and traveled about Europe for some months with this consort“) and of the book (“I wrote accounts of these travels which were bundled together into books and paid for the journeys, but left nothing over.“). The NY Times shared Waugh’s lack of enthusiasm for the book. When Labels was republished in 1949 (in abridged form as part of a collection, When the Going was Good), the NYT simply noted that Labels did not have “a great deal of interest“. This might seem surprising for a journey which included Paris, Monte Carlo, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Cairo, Constantinople, Crete, Athens, Corfu, Venice, Haifa, Nazareth, Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon as well as modern day Croatia and Montenegro. However, the reader looking for much insight into the places themselves will be disappointed. In that regard, the NYT appears right although dismisses Labels too lightly. In his unfinished essay about Waugh, Orwell observed that Waugh’s books appeared to consist of “high-spirited foolery“, and were “tinged by the kind of innocent snobbishness that causes people to wait twenty-four hours on the pavement to get a good view of a royal wedding.” Both are on display in Labels. Waugh explains early on that his book is so titled because all of the places he visits have already been “fully labelled“. He admits that “there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard” and “no towns so constantly and completely and completely overrun with tourists” as those he visits. Why then engage in writing a travel book about such places? Nicholas Shakespeare provides the motive in his introduction to Waugh Abroad, (Waugh’s collected travel writing); the cruise was part expenses paid trip and part honeymoon. Waugh may also have been trying his hand at travel writing because it was a popular and growing literary genre. Indeed, Paul Johnson, writing in the Spectator notes that Waugh could have joined the circle of travel writers in the 1930s apart from one “insuperable reason”: He travelled to ‘get away’, always a compulsion. But none of his travel books reveals any profound interest in the places he saw, the people who inhabited them or the art they produced. Instead, he looked for bizarre characters or events which could provide material for his anarchic humour in fiction. Waugh’s lack of interest in the places he visits is evident in Labels.  He reserves his enthusiasm for lesser visited destinations – the Croatian coast, Lisbon, Barcelona – and also Malta which he praises as being as not having been allowed to become a “show place”. Generally, Waugh is more interested in lampooning famous places as travel destinations along with those who visit them. He expresses disappointment with many of the sights he visits.   Bored with the “cult of mere antiquity“, the Sphinx is described as “an ill-proportioned composition of inconsiderable aesthetic appeal” while Etna at sunset is dismissed with the sentence: “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting”.  While visiting the Serapeum at Sakkara, he wonders whether the joke is on “us”, longing to declaim – “fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all of these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must for ever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Waugh also takes a swipe at earnest travellers writing more serious travelogues (Hilaire Belloc, in particular, comes under fire by name and by inference, as “Off the Beaten Track in Surrey” could easily be a reference to Belloc’s Four Men a Farrago).  As a result Waugh recounts not only his journey but also offers insights in to travel, tourism along with different traveller types and motives and is funny doing it. He confesses to preferring the “fleshy comforts” of the cruise ship to the “dirt and indignity” of rail travel and the “cold and noise” of air travel (not to mention air-sickness, which produces a funny anecdote).  When re-joining the cruise ship after a stay on Malta one senses Waugh’s relief at being able to unpack and renew his “acquaintance with the deck bar steward” and of pushing his trunk under the bed “in the knowledge that it would not be wanted again until [he] reached England“. Waugh recognises that travel by cruise ship would not be for the “real travel snob” for whom “recurrent clashes with authority at customs houses and police stations are half the fun of travelling” but prefers it to the “incessant packing and unpacking which is entailed in independent travelling“. Nevertheless, Waugh sets himself apart from his fellow passengers and enjoys observing them exchanging “competitive anecdotes” about their shore adventures and bargaining skills and foresees the pretensions with which trinkets haggled over in bazaars might be presented at home (as a “reminder of those magical evenings under a wider sky“). He delights in the foibles of his fellow passengers who, when encountered in less reputable places ashore, “wink knowingly at you the next morning” and “borrow money at Casinos“. Waugh also captures the frustration of having too little time to see things meaningfully.  In Naples he is “impelled by a restless sense of obligation” to see much more than he intelligibly could and admits disappointment with Mallorca although recognises that may be a result of “excess of variety” brought on by moving so rapidly from place to place so that one “misses the subtler and more fugitive qualities which reveal themselves shyly to more leisured travellers“. At the start of Labels, Waugh proclaims that “[e]very Englishman abroad, until it is proved to the contrary likes to consider himself a traveller and not a tourist“.  He identifies with “real travel snobs” who shudder at the thought of pleasure cruises and guided tours yet prefers the “outstanding comfort and leisure” of a cruise ship.   On boarding the Stella Polaris, Waugh admits that it is time to give up the pretence and accept that he is a tourist and not a traveller.  To (or for) the reader’s amusement, he struggles to do so though and in Naples, insists on sightseeing alone, ends up wasting money and seeing almost nothing, finally admitting that he might have fared better to join a guided tour.  Perhaps Waugh merely saw, as Fussell later recognised, that “[t]he anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now“. Waugh then is a curious type traveller but is nonetheless interesting and funnier for it.  At times, when reading Labels, one wonders why Waugh left the British Isles at all, but we should be glad that he did. Further reading: Times Literary Supplement review of Labels 2011 edition   For an overview of Waugh’s Travel Writing see this article or , for a more detailed analysis, Nicholas Shakespeare’s introduction in Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing or the chapter, Evelyn Waugh’s Moral Entertainments in Paul Fussell’s Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars.

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.

Richard_Halliburton

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.)

HighFlight-Halliburton4

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.