Archive for June, 2013

Michael Asher: Impossible Journey

June 28, 2013

After reading his first book (see recent post) I hunted down this his third – straight away. It’s the story of his journey across the Sahara from West to East, Mauritania to Egypt, with his wife, by camel, and, to my mind, confirmed him on a par with Thesiger and other desert explorers. This was clearly a very arduous and dangerous journey, undertaken for the love of travel, and getting to know the peoples whose lands he passed through. I was also pleased that there was a decent, useful map to track his travels – so often this is skimped or or omitted from travel books.

They travelled with a number of different guides – clearly only a madman would travel without a local guide, though they did for a short distance – and it was interesting to see how differently they behaved. The authorities in each of the countries through which they passed provided their own challenges, and Asher recounts the changing face of desert travel and desert life, with the advent of the car and the truck, and the arrival of Westerners out for a quick dash in a vehicle across some desert, of which they necessarily must observe very little.

Personally, I found the relationship between Asher and his wife tended to get in the way of the travel and description at times, but that’s probably rather harsh on my part, as they did travel together.

What’s so compelling about deserts? Vast open spaces, inhospitable spaces, spaces where the individual is forced to confront every aspect of her/himself, places clearly of great beauty – though it’s interesting that the local inhabitants do not recognise this! – places with history. Shelley’s Ozymandias…

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Hanna Kochanski: The Eagle Unbowed

June 21, 2013

The history of Poland is very complicated, particularly in the twentieth century, and this book is about Poland and the Second World War. I’m not a historian, but am half-Polish. I’ve read quite a lot about the place and the period, and also about the formation of the Polish community in Britain. So I was eager to read this book, and not disappointed: Hanna Kochanski picks her way through the minefield very deftly. Nothing is overlooked, it seemed to me: the difficulties of rebuilding Poland after the Great War, the complexities of relationships between all the races and nationalities in the country, including the Jews, the diplomacy, the invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union, the horrors of occupation and resistance, the betrayals by the Western Allies as the war came to an end…

I have a lot of sympathy with the old idea of the Polish Commonwealth and its attempts to incorporate a large area and many peoples, because my family is from the territories lost at the end of the war; equally, it seems like an idea from a bygone age, which was never going to work in the twentieth century for so many reasons. But the tragedy of what happened at the end of the war is never really going to be understood by people who have no connection with Poland – the huge loss of territory and two large cities, centres of culture and education. Nor, I suspect, is it easy to understand the deliberate attempts by two invading nations to eradicate a country and exterminate its cultural elite.

So Poland is now a much smaller country, and almost exclusively Polish in nationality, and many of the places Kochanski writes about are vanished, totally obliterated by war, or renamed, a part of history now, populated by completely different nationalities.

Is it worth dwelling on the past? It is, for the truth to be told, no matter how awkward. The Poles do not come out shining from all this: their diplomats were arrogant and often unrealistic both before and during the war; some Poles were anti-semitic; some Poles betrayed their country. Poles fought bravely on many fronts during the war, enduring great hardships; the story of how so many came eventually to be released from Soviet captivity and make their many different ways to Britain to join the allies is still being told. I learned that Poland was one of the pioneering nations in parachuting before the war, and I finally realised how chaotic the landings at Arnhem in 1944 were.

Britain does not come out of this smelling of roses either: often racist, hostile, negative towards its ally and her troops, unable or unwilling to understand Poland or its people, often belittling its contribution to the war effort. And yet, after the war, Britain allowed Polish troops to remain rather than sending them back to further captivity… and that’s why I’m British.

Kochanski’s book is wide-ranging; she acknowledges how complex the issues are; she show how small nations get ground up unmercifully in the wheels of big power politics. ┬áHer evaluations are lucid and fair. It’s a valuable and important book, and alongside the current books of Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies, goes a long way towards giving the complete picture of the times.

Michael Asher: In Search of the Forty Days’ Road

June 14, 2013

Two very different reasons got me reading this – firstly, it’s about travel through deserts, specifically in Southern Sudan, and secondly, it’s by someone from my home town, and who went to the same secondary school as I did for a while, though we were separated by a year or two (I never knew him).

Very quickly it became clear that Asher had fallen in love with the desert, and the ways of desert people: he lived and travelled with them, spoke their language and wanted to learn from them – in short, someone in the footsteps, at least, of Thesiger and the like, although I learned, from an interesting article in wikipedia, that Asher would not agree with this. At first, I felt he was romanticising the desert tribes and their way of life in the way that a (relatively) affluent westerner could, in that at any time he could leave, and return home to our way of life, whereas those who came from the desert and lived there could not.

However, there developed a deeper understanding, it seemed to me: he was drawn to explore (illegally at times) territories that were a war zone at the time (late 70s/ early 80s) looking for ancient travel routes across the desert, although ultimately thwarted in that search. He learned as much as he could about camels, in order to know how to buy the most suitable ones for his purposes. And he sought to share all aspects of the life of the desert.

He writes well, and carefully, with an eye to explaining what the uneducated western reader will need to know to understand what he has to say, as well as describing the beauty (as he perceives it, in contrast to those he travels with) of the desert. And he is drawn deeper, to reflect on the inevitable changes that technology and globalisation are having and will have, on these societies, which he refuses to see as ‘primitive’ in our terms, recognising that, although their life seems harsh and basic to us, they have (or had, until recently) all that they needed to live and survive. There are messages for us, here, about the nature of sufficiency, and contentment.

I’m really glad to have come across Michael Asher, and will be moving on to other of his travel writings shortly…

Christina Dodwell: A Traveller on Horseback

June 8, 2013

Another book about a traveller visiting obscure parts of a region I never cease to enjoy reading about, in this case Eastern Turkey and Iran, and with a specific emphasis on early Christian remains in two states which are now Moslem.  Christina Dodwell travelled in the early 1980s, so not long after the Iranian Revolution.

She met interesting people and saw interesting places, but dwells insufficiently on them: I longed for the detail of a Robert Byron in her descriptions of the building she saw.

I must admit, it took quite an effort to convince myself that it was worth the effort of reading, as the writing, or the editing of the writing, was very poor, with frequent inattention to sentence structure and punctuation, as well as limited vocabulary. I know I sound like a teacher, and that’s what I used to be; I can put up with an occasional error, but several per page, frequently, and I feel someone hasn’t done their job properly: they might squeeze a grade C at GCSE English…

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

June 8, 2013

I’ve been an avid Holmes fan since I was seven. I know that there were antecedents in the annals of detective fiction, as well as imitators, but I had never got round to reading any; I knew vaguely of the existence of three anthologies of stories edited by Hugh Greene, and recently I laid my hands on a copy.

Gripe about 1980s penny-pinching publishers: they used awful glue in mass-market paperbacks for several years; it dried hard and creamy-while and soon crumbled like cheap toffee, showering you with debris as you read and pages and whole sections became detached from the book. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve had to take apart completely and re-bind in order to read them. This was another: shame on you, Penguin Books.

There was an astonishing variety and range of stories here: some involved absolutely no detection at all; some involved individual sleuths, some the traditional pair of detective and side-kick; some had female detectives and foreshadowed Miss Marple; others involved criminals and other shady characters using the skills of detection to further their own interests… Some of the mysteries were worthy of the master, and sometimes I detected not quite plagiarism, but influence and imitation, particularly in the matter of plots.

If you are a Holmes fan, then I think you will enjoy reading these stories; Conan Doyle had rivals and imitators, some who were pretty good. Hugh Greene gives useful information about sources and potted biographies of the writers, too: clearly a labour of love.

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