Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

A13Vt7BNcvL._AC_UL436_I don’t often go in for biographies – perhaps less than once a year. However, I’d heard of this controversial biography of one of my favourite travel writers and wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As an example of the genre it’s fascinating in the author’s attempts to analyse, understand and criticise his subject, who, at the same time, he clearly rates very highly; he therefore has also to admit and try to understand his disappointment. It becomes a critical investigation by a compatriot and admirer, uneasy about a lot of what he learns, but it doesn’t become a hatchet job.

Only a Pole could have written this book: there is so much context one needs in order to understand how Kapuściński, from the borderlands originally, and whose home therefore disappeared into the Soviet Union after Yalta, became a loyal Party member in post-war Poland: it allowed him to become a journalist, to travel widely and to develop his craft; it also enabled him to know the right people who could protect him when things became difficult. So Domosławski’s account and analysis of attitudes driving various groups in Poland is careful, detailed and very necessary.

There are evidently many contradictions in Kapuściński, who carefully edited and altered his past when it suited him. It is hard to see when people are playing the necessary games and when they are genuinely sincere about the prospect of building a new society, though it does seem that Kapuściński was genuine in his support of the regime initially. People were seeking out parameters for freedom of action, as well as being idealistic supporters of socialism. And people needed to cover each other’s backs, and still do in the current poisonous atmosphere of Polish politics. Domosławski also explores Kapuściński’s contacts with the security services, and the self-censorship of some of his writing in order not to antagonise the US.

Kapuściński’s journalism developed detailed pictures of the Third World: he fell in love with Africa and Latin America. He rejects the exotic, and talks with ordinary people, developing at the time a new form of journalism much emulated today, spending much time in the middle of dangerous revolutions and anti-colonialist struggles against white rulers in the 1960s. He came to create legends about himself and his scrapes and escapades: Domosławski carefully investigates the myths about his contacts and connections with Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, among others.

Although he was ultimately disappointed with the failures of African decolonialisation, it’s evident he was committed to the struggles of the poor and oppressed in the Third World, and socialist governments in Eastern Europe gave more than token support to some of these struggles. To me he appeared to be a man of a certain time and era who in a number of ways was gradually left behind or overtaken by events.

A good deal of Kapuściński’s journalism is still unavailable in English, unfortunately. One of his most well-known books, The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, can also be see as a fairly thinly-veiled allegory about the state of his own country in the 1970s. Domosławski analyses the qualities of his writing and what made him so popular and successful

There is much fascinating insight into the Solidarity period, the time of martial law and the new Poland which emerged in the 1990s, and evidently Kapuściński had trouble coming to terms with his own past after the fall of socialism, and how it might be perceived by the new era.

Kapuściński wrote committed journalism, in the service of a cause. From his wide experience, he made many very perceptive observations about globalisation, neo-liberalism and its effects on our world, and where these forces may be leading us. Although analysis and research, by Domosławski and others, reveal considerable errors, falsifications and inventions in his works, it is ultimately impossible to separate the man and his deeds from his origins and his time as a citizen of the People’s Republic. Literary reporting and journalism are not the same thing, and he was operating within a very different tradition of the press and reportage from the Anglo-American one by which so much is measured; the borders of journalism and fiction are fuzzier in his work. I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on in English and I have enjoyed it very much; I can appreciate that the atmosphere and the commitment, the love of people and places shine through, and while I have been shown that there are factual inaccuracies deliberately introduced, for me this does not detract from a very important and enjoyable body of work.

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On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

41dqbism+jl._ac_us218_I asked for and received another volume of desert travel writing for Christmas and I’ve just finished it: it was really good. The first thing to say is that it is a very nicely produced book, with some integral illustrations – not many – excellent maps and a very full bibliography. I was gratified to find that I’ve read a good number of the books in my own armchair desert explorations already, and I’ve added others to my long list…

Atkins visits most of the major deserts of the world and spends time in each, not so much exploring as experiencing and reporting. The only one he misses is the Namib/Kalahari, which is a shame; it’s one of the ones I know least about, too. His fascination is evident, as is his close observation and description of the places and people he encounters.

I was horrified to read about the violence done to Aboriginal ancestral homelands in the Australian desert by British nuclear testing in the 1950s; the sheer callousness and cavalier attitude is truly shocking. I have to say I was not surprised by what I read, though, given the imperialist past of the British state. We should be truly ashamed at what was supposedly done in our name.

The Gobi and other surrounding areas of desert and wilderness are what I have read most about and yet they still remain enigmatic in many ways. The Silk Route necessarily skirted either the north or the south of these regions and so, whilst uninhabitable and desolate, were nevertheless known. Atkins is interesting and informative about current issues the Chinese state has with the largely Uighur and Muslim population of the Xinjiang region, and his journey there often seems rather perilous.

The devastation and death of the Aral Sea has been well-documented by others too, and the adjoining desert areas of Kazakhstan were also abused by the Soviets for their nuclear testing programme. As I read this book I realised that humans had contrived, by their efforts to make many of these already inhospitable areas of our planet even worse…

I learned much from Atkins’ travels in the United States, too. He visits the desert areas along the border with Mexico and recounts some dreadful tales of what refugees attempting to reach the ‘land of opportunity’ endured, and that killed many others. All this is currently hidden behind President Trump’s machinations and lies and attempts to build a wall. I was heartened to read of Americans taking risks and breaking laws in order to support and rescue refugees in danger of dying in the desert regions. In many ways the visits to the deserts of the US were the most disturbing, weird and unnatural of all.

Atkins also visits the Egyptian deserts and spends time in some of the ancient Egyptian monasteries that date from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Here he walks in similar footsteps to William Dalrymple in his excellent book From The Holy Mountain.

This was a lovely books in so many ways, written by an intelligent and enquiring traveller who taught me a lot; his evident fascination with deserts, as well as his observant and reflective approach make it a read I seriously recommend.

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

5142oySDKtL._AC_US218_This is a lovely little book, and beautifully produced, too.

Years ago, I learned that the young Johann Sebastian Bach had taken leave of absence from his post as organist in Arnstadt to go to Lübeck in northern Germany to see the famous organist and composer Buxtehude, who worked at the Marienkirche in that city. Bach stayed way for longer than he had permission to do, and must have learned much from the old composer; I’m useless in terms of understanding music, but those who know recognise his influence on my hero’s work.

What astonished me then, and still does, was that Bach made the 230 mile journey on foot, in both directions. In a sense that’s obvious, as he was not wealthy enough to travel by horse, but it shows the devotion to his art, and the determination to pursue it to the limits.

A couple of years ago the writer of the book, accompanied by a BBC sound recordist and a producer, covered some sections of the walk, capturing the sounds and atmosphere for a series of broadcasts (which I have yet to listen to). To me, it seems weird that they only did selected bits of the journey, but if they had done it all, it would still have been edited for broadcasting, I suppose. And yet the book captured the essence of the journey: some of the key places, the terrain, landscape, sounds that Bach would have encountered, along with reflections on the man and the stage in his life when he made the journey, at the age of twenty or so; a relaxing and thoughtful hundred pages or so.

My personal love of Bach’s music took me to Arnstadt and other places five years or so ago, and then last year I also managed to spend a few days in Lübeck, so I can connect both ends of the journey at least; were I younger I might consider the entire walk.

Christmas books

December 26, 2018

It’s always lovely to receive presents at Christmas, and, as you might expect, a number of mine are usually books, and ones that I’m really looking forward to reading; no change this year!

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A slim but beautifully produced volume: Something of His Art, by Horatio Clare. This one was prompted by J S Bach’s epic journey on foot, of some 230 miles (each way) from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Luebeck in northern Germany to visit the famous organist Dietrich Buxtehude; last year the writer covered various stages of this journey for the BBC, accompanied by a sound recordist and saved his impressions.

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Seasoned readers of my blog will be aware of my fascination (obsession?) with deserts. William Atkins’ book The Immeasurable World (Journeys in Desert Places) is therefore right up my street, and I can’t wait to get started, but the Bach will come first…

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Travel and photography are two of my interests and so I’m looking forward to serious browsing in a weighty tome Travelogues, by Burton Holmes: this American travelled worldwide in the latter years of the nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century and took thousands of photographs of all the places he visited: here’s a chance to look at photos of places as they used to be in the days when travel meant travel and not tourism, and was a serious business.

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One novel, this year, which has had rave reviews wherever I’ve come across them – and I’ve read other books by this contemporary Polish writer – Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I’ll let you know…

Travel writing recommendations

December 12, 2018

I don’t know how avidly some of my readers consume my pieces about travel-writing, whether texts I’ve read, or pieces about my own travels, but I thought I’d share some of my recommendations with you.

Over the years I’ve acquired – second-hand, for the series is no longer in print – many volumes of the Penguin Travel Library, which flourished in the seventies and eighties. It’s a very wide-ranging collection, and although it suffers from the poor production values of that period, used copies of most of the volumes do turn up for sale pretty regularly. Much harder to acquire, but more interesting because of the rarity of some of the volumes, are the famous cerise-coloured Penguins from the 1930s and 1940s. Some booksellers are trying to put silly prices on these, but mostly they can be found for reasonable prices; there’s an amazingly helpful website I discovered (isn’t the internet wonderful: it’s for things such as this that it needed to be invented!) which lists them all, with brief notes, here.

The Century Travellers series from Hutchinson had an interesting list, but many of their re-issues seem to have been photographic reprints of old editions, sometimes with dreadful antique fonts which are tiring to read. And among the backlists of the American budget publishers Dover Books there are many travel gems to be found, again often photographic reprints.

For a while – I think they’ve stopped now – a German publisher,Könemann, who produce beautifully clothbound hard-cover editions at very sensible prices, produced editions in English; a series with blue dust-jackets offered classics of English literature, and a series with deep reddish-brown covers were classics of travel literature in English: I can recommend both highly.

Reprints of travel classics are currently being issued by Eland, and there are some interesting rarities in their lists. And – though these are very expensive – it’s now possible to get reprints of any of the publications of the renowned Hakluyt Society from the very inception. These are very serious and often very dry academic works, though.

Finally, if you can read French, the publishers Payot Rivages, in their series Petite Bibliothèque Payot, have a long and very interesting list of travel writing comprising translations from English, which you won’t need, current writing in French, and writing from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which deserves to remain in print. And on my travels in France, I’m noticing more small publishers beginning to rediscover other lost delights.

Don’t overlook e-books either: if you come across a title from before 1923, chances are it’s available online to download in a variety of formats from Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive (that includes many Hakluyt Society titles!).

The three Voyages of Willem Barents

December 9, 2018

41RtZ0Dd2+L._AC_US218_Willem Barents was a skilled Dutch ship’s pilot and navigator who worked at the same time Shakespeare was writing his plays, and at the time when both English and Dutch sailors were seeking to outwit the more powerful Spanish and Portuguese traders by discovering a north-east passage around the north of Russia to China and other lands in the East. I first heard of his remarkable journeys many years ago; finally I’ve read the account of them.

We are talking about an era when navigators had no really reliable way of knowing where they were – this wasn’t to come until the perfection of Harrison’s famous clocks nearly a couple of centuries later – so there were really journeys into the unknown: unknown places, perils, natives: would they ever return? And I’d forgotten about scurvy – apparently the British admiralty used to reckon on losing 50% of crews to the disease on lengthy voyages…

I need to make a couple of things clear: firstly, Barents didn’t survive the third journey to the Arctic, and the accounts are actually by another member of the expedition who recognised the navigator’s part in their achievement, and secondly, this isn’t an easy read. It’s a reprint of a Hakluyt Society volume from the middle of the nineteenth century. That society has been at the forefront of editing and translating memoirs and accounts of travels and explorations for over a century an a half, and its volumes are seriously academic (and expensive!), and often present very dry and detailed accounts of voyages, as in this case; I didn’t read it for pleasure.

In this volume there is much very dull and scrupulous recording of distances and directions travelled as well as depth soundings, very useful information for those who went after. Places are named for the first time, and travellers are trying the best they can to ascertain where they actually are… The men encounter serious problems with aggressive polar bears (two men are killed and partly devoured) and they have never encountered such ice before. One needs to remember how terribly small a lot of ships were in those days – often much less than 100 tons, so the size of a couple of juggernaut lorries, maximum.

The real perils, and the most interesting part of the narrative, are encountered on the third journey, where they are trapped by ice near the north-east coast of Novaya Zemlya. They realise they will have to over-winter, and build themselves a wooden hut, partly by pillaging their ship, which is raised high out of the water by the ice, and which they constantly fear will be crushed to pieces. They really cannot believe how cold it is – they have no way of measuring the temperature, of course, as we are in the days before the thermometer – and fear for their lives; when they try burning coal from the ship to keep warm they nearly kill themselves by carbon monoxide poisoning.

They live largely by trapping and eating arctic foxes, avoiding the perils of polar bears as best they can, for their guns are not really up to killing such creatures easily. Gradually they weaken physically and are overcome by scurvy. They spend the best part of ten months overwintering, finally managing to leave in June 1597, not in their ship which is forever trapped in the ice but in a pair of open boats in which they sail over 1500 miles back to civilisation. Long sick Willem Barents dies quite suddenly as the boats sail round the northern coast of Novaya Zemlya on the homeward journey.

This was truly an epic journey, even if there was a lot more I’d have liked to know, and which perhaps a more recent traveller might have included. But the astonishment doesn’t end there: in 1871 – that’s nearly 275 years later – another ship discovered the remains of the hut on the island where the men had overwintered, with the contents almost perfectly preserved in the ice…

Peter Mundy, Merchant Adventurer

November 9, 2018

51HCMjvr2OL._AC_US160_My interest in travellers from centuries past led me, a few years ago, via the Hakluyt Society, to Peter Mundy, a merchant whose travels in the first half of the seventeenth century they published in five volumes. These I duly downloaded, intending to read them one day… which day hadn’t arrived by the time I saw this edited and commented abridgement by R E Pritchard, and came to my senses, accepting that I would never find the time – in this existence, at least – to read the real thing.

Mundy was an English merchant adventurer who travelled both for business and personal reasons, mainly quite widely in the Levant, the Middle East, India and the Chinese coast. His adventures and misadventures were no doubt all new and exciting at the time but are now often rather tiresome and repetitive, particularly as all was done in the cause of trade and money-making, rather than with the search for knowledge as the primary driving force. What is new is accidental, though Mundy nevertheless describes well, in detail, and charmingly also illustrated his diaries with sketches and drawings.

He was interested in all curiosities, creatures – especially birds, women’s attire and also unusual punishments and tortures, which are illustrated. If you want to know what being impaled actually involved, or the specific stages of being broken on the wheel, then Mundy’s your man, with the pictures to show for it.

He also travelled through southern parts of our own kingdom, and parts of Europe, including Prussia, Poland and Russia, and settled down to live in Danzig (Gdansk) for some six years or so, even though the coldness of the winters initially shocked him. I found this section particularly interesting, as there were apparently sizeable English and Scottish contingents in Danzig at the time, and he refers to travelling players coming from England, which ties in with stories of Shakespeare’s company visiting – through the man himself is not recorded as having been with them – and the contemporary Shakespeare festival in Gdansk, and its new Shakespeare theatre.

We are also reminded of the perils and difficulties of travel in those times; I was not aware of just how many men were lost on long sailing voyages in those days.

So, the shorter volume is worth a look; if I have time I’ll read volume four of his travels which deals with Poland in more detail

George Kennan: Tent Life in Siberia

November 4, 2018

51yV8-xSDsL._AC_US218_Well, this was a find! I had heard of it before, long ago, and it’s definitely worth a read, if you’re into slightly crazy travel and exploration.

Because the first attempts at laying a transatlantic cable had been unsuccessful in the mid-19th century, it was thought that an overland cable through the US, across the Bering Strait and then across the whole of Russia might be an alternative (!). So, men were sent to survey and prepare the way… four Americans plus a few hired Russians landed in Kamchatka in the late 1860s. Today the utter cluelessness of the enterprise makes my mind boggle…

Kamchatka is a vast and incredibly isolated, actively volcanic peninsula. My edition of the Road Atlas of the Soviet Union shows hardly any roads a century after Kennan and co visited. The Siberia through which they planned to lay the cable does not even figure in the atlas… Nobody seems to refer to any maps – and it’s a great shame that the publishers didn’t include one in this edition because trying to follow Kennan’s adventures on a modern atlas verges on the impossible.

Kennan is in his early twenties, full of energy; nothing throws him. He’s a very well-educated young man who refers frequently to literature and the classics as he describes their journey, and he’s also awed by the beauty of the Kamchatka peninsula, which he describes very well, lyrically even; in spite of various incredible hardships and dangers, he remains tuned in to nature and landscape, revelling in the many appearances of the Northern Lights, and the amazingly short-lived flourishing of the Siberian spring and summer (about two months in all…).

He’s also a very humorous writer, in the Mark Twain vein, for those who are familiar with any of that man’s travelogues – although Twain has a much easier time than Kennan. He’s marvellous on Westerners’ attempts to wrestle with the Russian language and its alphabet. The easy humour and optimism of youth shines through his encounters and conversations, his relationships with his fellow Americans and his response to a foreign land.

The group gain some knowledge of the terrain and make preparations for laying some telegraph wires, only to be told, as they are relieved from the horrors of another Siberian winter by the arrival of an American supply ship, that a recent attempt at re-laying the transatlantic cable has been successful, so they are to sell off what they can, pack up and return home. Which Kennan does, without a grumble.

H V Morton: A Traveller in Rome

October 30, 2018

518hprFDaQL._AC_US218_I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of books by Morton, who wrote around the middle of the last century. His travels in the footsteps of Christ and of St Paul are careful, detailed and thoughtful visits to the places, with conversations, encounters and personal responses; I learnt a lot from them.

As I’m thinking about a trip to Rome – which I’ve never visited – I thought it would be interesting to read his take on the Eternal City. A good deal of it was interesting and informative, though I’m sure wildly out of date in places, but there was a great deal that I skimmed through, concerning people and history which didn’t really interest me, Renaissance power-politics and the English visitors of the early nineteenth century and the like.

I realised fairly early on that this book was rather different from the earlier two I’ve mentioned above. They derive their unity from the fact that Morton is following in someone’s footsteps and so in some ways he’s merely an observer, and where he goes is dictated by someone else (a historical personage), whereas in this book the central characters are the city and himself, and so the focus is subtly but clearly different. His interests didn’t always coincide with mine.

Useful things I learned: the city is walkable; lots of detailed information about togas which I’d never known, in spite of my studies, and similarly on the Vestal Virgins, and the pagan origins of the new fire ceremony that is part of the Christian Easter vigil.

I’m glad I read it as part of the preparation for my eventual trip, but it’s an interesting historical curiosity rather than a traveller’s ‘must read’.

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