Archive for July, 2019

Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

July 30, 2019

91BBJbiHQXL._AC_UY218_QL90_  It’s a long time since I came cross such a frustrating book. I count myself as a walker, in that I try and walk everywhere I can in my normal daily routines, and in that I love going off on walking tours, exploring hills and forests and taking in the beauty of the countryside. Although I’d also like to undertake some long-distance trails, I think that age and a foot problem probably exclude this. So a book about walking ought to be right up my street (!).

But reading this was like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Gros hardly ever seemed to be going anywhere clear, he rambled (verbally) and spent a lot of time stating what I’m afraid I have to call the bloody obvious if you are a walker yourself, leading me to think that, if you’re not a walker, then you won’t find this book very helpful, either.

He writes about famous people who apparently walked a lot – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant and others, but I could never really see what he was achieving by using them as examples. A good deal of what he had to say was plain common-sense dressed up a philosophy, banal to any serious walker, I would have thought. I found him most (and that wasn’t very) interesting on Thoreau and the contrasts the latter drew between frugality and austerity, and between benefit and profit, when considering decisions about how to run his life. Gros also had a few thought-provoking comments about the idea of pilgrimage too, and I learned more about Gandhi and his many non-violent protests, which also involved a lot of walking.

So, what was the purpose behind this book? What can it say to us ordinary walkers? To this one, it was vacuous and ultimately forgettable, as well as pretentious in a way that only a certain type of very annoying French writer can be. Professional, long-distance walkers and pilgrims could write something far better and more interesting: let me point you in the direction of another French walker who is miles (!) better: Bernard Ollivier. I’ve written about many of his books, if you care to search my posts. He writes about the astonishing walks he’s actually done, the people and places he’s been to and encountered, and, more to our point here, a real philosophy of walking (though I’m not sure he’d call it that) emerges as he walks and writes…

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On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

Miroslav Holub: The Fly

July 11, 2019

She sat on a willow-trunk
watching
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shouts,
the gasps,
the groans,
the trampling and the tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
as she sat on a disembowelled horse
meditating
on the immortality of flies.

With relief she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and only the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and only
a few arms and legs
still twitched jerkily under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armourer.

And thus it was
that she was eaten by a swift
fleeing
from the fires of Estrées.

I’ve always found writing that tries to look at human events from a non-human perspective fascinating; it often says as much about the writer as the subject. Here (in a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub) we have a nasty and insignificant fly observing nasty and insignificant humans killing each other in battle.

We’re back in the fourteenth century. Yes, it’s the battle of Crécy, but the fly knows nothing about that; probably not watching the battle, not having any conception of what’s going on – we humans think everything is about us. She does fly things: copulates, sits on carrion, lays eggs and gets eaten by another creature who doesn’t know what is going on in the world of humans either (although she is affected by it).

Holub uses the innocent creatures – flies, horse, bird – to put a different perspective on the human events, which he skilfully locates using names, times and places, all human-only aspects of the world.

We see flies as repellent creatures, but what is actually repellent here? There are the gross images of what the fly does, and yet the grossness – dead horse, dead armourer, burning villages – is all human-created.

Even through translation, the horrors of the battle and its consequences come over vividly: the actions of battle in three nouns and two participles; the disembowelled horse, the blue tongue of the armourer. Limbs twitch jerkily as the whisper of decay – what a marvellous image! – softly circles (notice the alliteration there) the bodies…

And the poet is not only alert to the irony of the humans’ situation in all this, but to the fly’s too: moments after apparently reflecting on her species’ immortality, she is eaten… and yet flies are everywhere, omnipresent, and after any war will no doubt abound, for a while.

Not a great poem, not brilliant in terms of technique or use of language, but clever enough to make a reader pause, see something from a perspective s/he would otherwise never have thought of using, and reflect briefly before moving on: for me that’s the essence of a poet’s art, something I can’t do and the poet can.

On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

On forests

July 7, 2019

My father was born and grew up in some of the most remote forests in Europe, far away on the borders of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Bielorussia as they were before the Second World War, forests so large and impenetrable that it was said that during the war, Germans dared not enter the forest because they would not come out again… which is probably why my father’s home village was burned to the ground because of partisan activity. And yet vague traces of the tiny hamlet of four houses are still faintly visible on Google Earth…

So I’ve often wondered if my love of forests is inherited. Yes, I know that biologically that’s a nonsense, but all the same, I love forests: nothing beats a walk in the woods where I am surrounded by trees of all different kinds, an astonishing variety of shades of green, amazing effects of dappled sunlight through the leaves and branches. If it’s raining, there’s the gentle sound of the downpour on the leaves. There’s all the birdsong from all sides, and the possibility of encounters with creatures: last year in Luxembourg I met a wolf, and the year before, mouflon (wild cattle).

I have family, friends and acquaintances who rave about the Lake District and the views, and who don’t like the idea of being surrounded by trees. But I like the element of surprise, rather than having all the landscape permanently visible when the hills are bare: in the forests, suddenly there will be a gap in the trees and a surprise view; half a mile or so further on, another opening will reveal quite a different picture: nothing is ever the same. I can enjoy open spaces, but nothing cuts it for me quite like a forest.

When I’m off walking in Luxembourg, I can walk for an entire day without meeting a soul: I like this, not because I’m some kind of misanthrope, but because I do find such solitude very conducive to reflection and meditation. It’s rather like being on an open-air retreat. I can take stock of the past year, or of my whole life; I can ponder problems and difficulties I may be faced with; I can elaborate future plans. And there’s my phone to record notes, ideas, flashes of brilliance whenever they occur.

Recently and rather belatedly it has occurred to me that I do need to be rather more careful when wandering off on my own like this, and I do now make sure that I have a first aid kit, emergency whistle and various useful supplies with me in case of any mishap: at nineteen I may have been immortal, not any longer. Each year I take a day or so to re-remember my basic map-reading and way-finding skills, and on the rare occasion when I have briefly strayed from the right path, the combination of maps and GPS on my phone has helped me get back on track.

I’m looking forward to a trip into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland soon, and another visit to the forests of the Ardennes in the autumn.

On the first moon landing

July 6, 2019

  downloadI’ve alluded to this event, the fiftieth anniversary of which is coming up later this month, in my blog at various points and labelled it as the single most amazing event in my lifetime. When I was at primary school, my best friend and I used to play space adventures in the playground at playtime and we wanted to be the first men to land on the moon. That says something about my age, as only a few years after I left primary school, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins beat us to it. I lost touch with that school friend and the last news I had about him was that he was a Russian Orthodox priest; I ended up a teacher…

Obviously everything about the landing was calculated to fit the US TV schedules, so I remember watching the landing late one evening and then going to bed, having set my alarm for 3.30am, which was when the actual walk on the moon was to take place. And it was absolutely amazing: I can still remember it, fuzzy, grainy black and white film, muffled voices from a quarter of a million miles away. It was an astonishing achievement, and for me has always symbolised something about what humans can do when they set their minds to it, the human spirit of intrepidity, and our urge to explore the universe and further our knowledge; I have no sympathy at all with those who say, but we could have spent the money better: just look at all the idiotic amounts of money wasted on armaments and warfare and then talk to me about spending money sensibly…

Next morning I went out and bought as many of the daily papers as my pocket money would afford; I still have these carefully stashed in the attic, along with a couple of treasures brought back for me by friends who happened to be in the USA at the time – the New York Times of the day they landed, and the following day when they left the moon.

Of course, it was a propaganda exercise, and a race with the Soviets who could not possibly be allowed to win; there were a few more Apollo missions that took more men to the moon and then the programme stopped. More realistic and useful research was later undertaken jointly by the USA and the USSR, with the space station Mir. But apart from that, it’s all gone pretty quiet. When will someone land on Mars? I’d hoped it might be in my lifetime but now I’m not so sure. Of course, I know that all sorts of knowledge is being acquired via all sorts of satellites, telescopes and other devices, and that this research is actually a far more sensible and cost-effective use of money and resources. And I’m amazed to know that the mobile phone in my pocket has more computing power than was available to NASA when the Apollo 11 mission took place.

I am always enthralled when I watch television programmes such as the recent The Planets series on the BBC with Brian Cox, when I was astonished to see just how much had been learned by the various unmanned missions to the planets compared with what was known when I was a child with my first interest in astronomy. The thought that the two Voyager space probes long ago left the region of our solar system forever, travelling into the unknown vastnesses of space, blows my mind. And when I look up to the night sky, and see our moon up there, I tell myself that half a century ago, humans walked there… and I think I believe it…

On not reading fiction…

July 6, 2019

I think I posted on this topic a while back; I’m still not reading very much fiction at all, though I have been re-reading some science fiction, but that doesn’t count, really – what I’m referring to is that I’m not discovering any new fiction, because I don’t really seem to want to…

There was research published not so long ago that suggested that men are less likely to read fiction, and I’m coming across more evidence that this seems to be the case; casual evidence, if you like, rather than research: of the literature-related blogs that I follow regularly, those by men tend to write about non-fiction, those by women write about fiction.

Someone (who – Umberto Eco?) once said that the person who reads novels lives 5000 lives whereas the person who doesn’t, only lives one. That has left me thinking that I’ve participated in thousands of lives in my time, and now that I’m increasingly aware that my time is limited, perhaps I’m concentrating on living my one and only life? But that just feels like a cheap crack, a throw-away response to the issue.

If I look at my ‘pending’ shelf, there’s quite a bit of fiction there, waiting for my attention. What actually happens quite often is that I will finish a book, and head to the pending piles for the next one, and find myself totally unable to decide on what to tackle next.

There are a decent number of novels waiting for me to choose from, and yet although at the time I bought them, they called to me, they now no longer do, and I can’t really figure out what is going on. I look to books I want to re-read, as a kind of comfort read, rather than having the courage to embark on something new, a challenge. Often I will wander off, defeated, and take refuge in a magazine or a crossword.

Does anyone else out there have this kind of problem?

Norman Douglas: Old Calabria

July 6, 2019

81wSI-iJP9L._AC_UL436_  Here was a disappointment, especially since the blurb on the back promised one of the best travel books ever written…

I’d heard of Norman Douglas a good while back and meant to try some of his writing. He was writing earlier than I’d imagined, in this case shortly before the First World War, as he makes his way around southern Italy, describing places some fifteen years before Carlo Levi’s masterpiece, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Douglas is much more interested in the places and landscape than the people, it seems, and indeed at times is quite vituperative against the locals. His sceptical and mocking tone often belies his love of the charm and peacefulness, and the decaying beauty of the past.

His prose is often lyrical, his attitude leisured, and yet there is not enough to retain the reader. He treats all sorts of subjects in this omnium gatherum of a book; I loved the entire chapter on the supposed plagiarism by Milton of the story of Paradise Lost from a sacred Italian tragedy, and went off to do further research forthwith; I also loved the entertaining chapter of utterly bonkers stories about the supposed lives and escapades of various saints, especially those who could fly (although some, apparently, could only fly ‘a little’…)

Douglas clearly loved the places he wrote about, and knew the country extremely well, but ultimately I’m afraid I found the book rather a ragbag of disconnected pieces, with an evenness of tone that led to dullness, monotony even. Nothing really stood out as special in any way, and I found myself rushing towards the end of this disappointing read. I cannot decide whether it’s rambling and self-indulgent, or if it has just dated rather too much. However, there are many travel journals from much earlier times that I have read and found much more gripping and entertaining.

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