Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.

Amin Maalouf: Leo the African

July 13, 2021

     I’d no idea it was so long since I last read this novel, which never ceases to amaze me, because it is a (fictionalised) account of a real life, and I really don’t believe you could make it up.

Jews, Muslims and Christians live reasonably peaceably alongside one another in pre-Reconquista Granada; there is a recap of events leading to the fall of Granada to the Spanish in 1492, and the mayhem which follows for those who are not of the Catholic faith. There is the full vileness of the Inquisition, persecution and the inability of Christians to accept that anyone might be different. Our hero, and narrator, is a Muslim. And though it’s technically a novel, it’s also an autobiography: we cannot have the same expectations of plot as we might have of a completely fictional text; the narrative is linear, but we do grow inevitably attached to people and places.

The narrator and his family leave Granada and settle in Fez; we learn of schooling and lifelong friendships. Eventually he becomes a rich and successful businessman, close to those in power, travels widely and is used on various diplomatic missions by the authorities. His weirdest adventure is his kidnapping by Christians and presentation as a gift to the Pope! Here, his knowledge and skills are put to the service of the incredibly corrupt Church at the time of the Reformation; he is baptised against his will, but escapes being ordained priest before one of his missions. In the end, after years of wanderings, he is able to return to his home and family and live out the remainder of his life in peace as a devout Muslim. I had mis-remembered the plot from my earlier readings, and forgotten how small a section of the novel is his life in Rome at the service of the Pope.

I realised that the narrator’s famous book The Description of Africa is based on his travels all over the north of that continent; when I last read the novel, I had yet to track down that book. Leo travels in the footsteps of his earlier Muslim forbear Ibn Battutah, whose journeys a couple of centuries earlier rivalled those of Marco Polo.

I found the first person narrative effective and convincing. In the back of my mind was always the thought, this stuff is true; the narrative style is that of a devout Muslim, whose faith is at the forefront of his life and deeds (most of the time), and the adventures are almost non-stop. Towards the end of the book, the narrator is at the centre of world-changing events, with the Reformation, the attempts of an incredibly corrupt papacy to consolidate its power and build alliances to secure its future, even if this means joining forces with the Ottomans, and also the various rivalries weakening the Muslim world in those tumultuous years.

Over the years I have come to realise how good a writer Amin Maalouf is. Not only has he written some very good novels, but also a number of very interesting historical and social texts in which he presents thoughtful and powerful analysis of the current state of the world. He has received recognition by being elected to the Académie Française, but that’s all, as far as I’m aware. At the moment, I’m reflecting on what is different about Arabic fiction, thinking of Maalouf, and also Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Maybe it’s my position as an ‘outsider’ to their world, but I’m conscious of a different feel to their novels, one which cannot just be explained by the Muslim background that is omnipresent in a way that Christianity isn’t in Western fiction, for instance. Does anyone out there have any pointers?

The search for meaning

June 30, 2021

I’ve clearly reached a stage in my life where I’m looking back and reviewing things, wondering where I’ve got to, and I’ve found myself returning to a number of novels I first read in my student years, with the perspective and hindsight of a lifetime.

I can still remember the powerful effect of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge on me, while I was still at school: the idea of travelling the world searching for what life was all about, and the sense of freedom called to me, and I suppose I responded by becoming a hippy and doing a modest amount of travelling and exploring alternative lifestyles. I came across Jack Kerouac’s famous On The Road while at university, and that reinforced the notion of complete freedom to go wherever the whim took me; not so easy to accomplish in the UK in the 1970s, though. I quickly came to find that book somewhat superficial and haven’t felt the need to go back to it; when I read his Desolation Angels, with its accounts of solitude in the forests, I was more responsive. There has always been a part of me that has craved solitude, and I have always loved forests.

Round about the same time, I encountered Hermann Hesse, and if you look back over the past few months’ posts, you will see I’ve been revisiting his novels; I’ve just re-read my favourite of all time, Narziss and Goldmund, and there will be a post about it in a few days. It’s all about the duality of human nature, being torn between freedom and adventure, and the urge to seek safety and security, issues I’ve felt pulled in both directions by throughout my adult life: there was the immense freedom of my student and hippy days, the era of career, family and responsibilities, and now, in my later years a renewed sense of freedom and openness to do what I like, which is, sadly, a little curtailed by physical ageing. Hesse explores it all, which is why he spoke to my condition all those years ago, and still does. The rather more deliberate spiritual journey he describes in Siddhartha is just as powerful and moving, though in a different way…

More recently – that is, in my adult years – I came to read Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life, which is also about the values of solitude: set after the Great War, a German sea-captain, disgusted by what he has seen and experienced, leaves the world behind for the deep forests of East Prussia, to live with a single companion in a simple hut. It’s a somewhat romanticised vision of solitude, and undercut by the looming Nazi period and the eventual disappearance of the place after the war, but it’s appealing in its portrayal of the attractions of simplicity, away from the noise, complication and corruption of the outside world. I suppose part of my reading of books like that is that I’ve always imagined myself transposed into the setting, and wondered how I would (a) manage (b) enjoy that existence. That goes right back to my very first reading of Robinson Crusoe.

The final writer I’ll mention is not a novelist, but a traveller – and I use that word advisedly – Ella Maillart. She began her travels after the Great War, having experienced a sense of alienation from Europe and what it had just inflicted on itself; the Second World War she spend studying and practising with a guru in India, having realised that the external journeying had become an internal one. I have found her accounts of travel and her reflections on what she saw, experienced and learned through seeing the world, very interesting and enlightening; her move to introspection in her later life is another thing I have come to recognise in myself.

Where this all gets me, I suppose, is an awareness of my internal restlessness, and a strong sense of having been drawn in two different directions as I’ve lived and experienced my life. It has been both helpful and enlightening to learn, through my reading, that I’m not alone in this, and to accept the likelihood that the journey goes on as long as I do… The books I’ve mentioned I have found compelling and powerfully moving whenever I have returned to them, so much so that I often hesitate before picking them up again, knowing that I’m heading for an emotional and mental shake-up.

Robyn Davidson: Tracks

June 12, 2021

     I’m a sucker for books about desert travel and exploration; I’m can’t remember what pointed me at this account from 1980 of a woman who decided she wanted to buy and train camels and travel with them across more than half of Australia, though desert, alone, from Alice Springs to the west coast. The book is an easy read, her tone chatty, and her mind open. And the journey is real travel and adventure, not tourism.

I was struck first by the horrible, open racism of white Australians towards the aboriginal population, and by the ridiculous machismo of white Australian men. Then I realised just how crazy Davidson’s plan was, along with her single-minded determination to succeed, against any and all odds. It quite quickly became evident that the book is as much about Davidson herself, her personal problems, and her developing self-knowledge, as it is about the camels and the desert, and I felt rather deceived, deprived of the account of the desert I had been expecting. A good half of the book has passed before she actually – finally – sets off on the trek.

Everything becomes messier and more complicated than she anticipated. The native Australians are suspicious of her because she is often accompanied by a photographer – she eventually sought sponsorship from National Geographic magazine for the journey. Camels turn out to be rather trickier to manage, and at times she’s less and less clear about what exactly she’s doing, or why. She also offers considerable insight into the world of the aborigines, their lives and the meanings and explanations they have accumulated over millennia of living in some of the harshest conditions on the planet; her revulsion at the whites’ behaviours and attitudes is very evident. The most interesting section of her journey is the one where she is accompanied by a single, elderly aborigine who decides to go part of the way with her; she learns much from the encounter.

Her account also becomes interesting – but only briefly – when she’s alone, and faced with nature in the raw, and she experiences these times as liberating her of all inhibitions, and describes places and feelings in more detail, sometimes conveying a clear sense of the isolation and the beauty of it all.

I’m glad I read it – I did get a sense of the vastness and the emptiness of the continent, as well as the ways it’s being pillaged by whites – but it’s not one I’ll be going back to. Too short on the desert and the description.

W H Davies: The Autobiography of a Super Tramp

May 15, 2021

     Here’s a book written well over a century ago; it’s been in my library since 1985, apparently unread (though I actually have a vague recollection of having read it at some point). It’s an autobiography – well, a partial one – an interesting slice of life which sustains the reader’s interest because it’s so far from the norm, the story of younger years spent on the road, by a man of humble enough beginnings, but with a clear literary bent. Davies is basically fortunate, having been bequeathed a legacy of ten shillings a week, which was actually plenty enough to live on at the end of the nineteenth century…

He ends up in the USA, where he learns the skills and science of being a man on the road, hustling and begging successfully; he recounts several years of adventures bumming around the country, working for a while and then blowing the wages on a spree with his mates, spending time with a whole crowd of varied and interesting characters. Davies is clear, from his experiences, about the friendliness and camaraderie between the down-and-outs, the way they share and look out for each other, and provide companionship for weeks at a time before moving on. It struck me that in a sense these men were the gig economy of their day.

His observations on, and experiences of the racial divide in the Deep South are scary: he witnesses at least one lynching.

Home – England – calls eventually, and although he has not touched it for five years, he acknowledges that the pension he has serves to make him lazy and fritter time away pointlessly, not that he ever comes across as feeling too guilty about this. Home again, he is unable to settle, and heads back over the Atlantic, and the Klondyke goldfields. Suddenly an accident – he falls from a moving train he has attempted to board, and loses a foot – changes everything. He writes of many kindnesses from total strangers in Canada, and then heads back to England to try and make a life as a writer, but cannot manage this, and reverts to a hand-to-mouth existence, which is evidently harder to sustain on this side of the Atlantic. His accounts of all the different ways it’s possible to scrape a living are fascinating, and I am sure that some of the inspiration for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London must have come from reading this book, which was helped to eventual success by impressing George Bernard Shaw, who contributed the preface. A good, easy and eye-opening read.

Irma Kurtz: The Great American Bus Ride

March 3, 2021

     There is a certain romanticism in the idea of spending three months travelling the entire United States by Greyhound Bus; you certainly wouldn’t get this feeling from thinking about National Express coaches over here…

Here is an unsettling book. Kurtz writes in a very readable, slightly laconic style. We learn a little, but not very much, about her. Her project – criss-crossing the entire country using three months’ worth of bus passes – is about her observations of a slice of American life, mostly focused on people, and very little on the places, meaning that as a piece of travel writing, it’s very frustrating. And the map is too rudimentary to do the job, I’m afraid.

I got an overall impression of the vastness of the country and the distances between places, but then I knew that already. A sense of atmosphere was evident at times. But overall the effect was very disjointed, and I suppose that is inevitable, given that she was travelling rather than stopping to visit places; there was only time in a town or city while waiting for the next connection, really.

So here was a book that did little more than reinforce a good number of the prejudices I have long held about the country and its people. Oddballs tend to gather in bus depots, I knew, and we meet an awful lot of them in this book. And you get a very skewed picture of a country, and a nation, from its bus depots alone. And because Kurtz is basically interacting with random strangers for short periods of time, she tends to categorise and label people. This goes further when she speculates about someone she sees, an approach which increasingly I found somewhere between insensitive and hurtful.

Ultimately I felt it was a wasted opportunity; we might have gained a much deeper insight from such a journey. I could not really see the point of her writing about what she had done, and I certainly couldn’t see the point of inflicting that much physical discomfort, appalling food and encounters with strange folk on oneself. Fortunately, it was a quick and forgettable read, and I am glad that I have read a good number of far better books about travelling the United States, a country I have never visited, and have tried long and hard to understand.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Noel Barber: Trans-siberian

December 26, 2020

This is an account of a journey on the Transsiberian Railway in the winter of 1939, so a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The writer and his wife begin their journey in Dairen, part of Japanese-occupied China, formerly the Russian city of Port Arthur, and now the city of Dalian. The casual anti-Japanese racism is quite shocking to this contemporary reader. Here is a white Westerner whose nose is put seriously out-of-joint, because of the way the Japanese clearly behave in a way that makes it clear they are the racially superior and more powerful ones. Of course, the Japanese treatment of China and the Chinese was abominable at this time; equally, everyone seemed to be anticipating war between Japan and the Soviet Union, a revenge re-play for the debacle of 1905…

I’ve always found old travel books fascinating, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the actual travelling requires a real effort, unlike so much of today’s travel. Then, there are the writers’ impressions of the places through which they pass, and the often very interesting casual encounters they have as they progress. All of these aspects combine to give a much clearer picture of a past era than you can necessarily derive from a history book.

What was particularly interesting about this book was that although the journey was made in 1939, the book wasn’t published until 1942, when we are in the middle of the Second World War, and the Soviet Union is one of our allies. Throughout, I was looking at the book as part of the propaganda effort to paint Stalin and the Soviets in an acceptable light, and how this was quite subtly done. The whole account of the journey and the places the writer sees and visits is interspersed with comments that update the reader to the current war and our ally’s efforts.

Stalin is very much in the background; we don’t get much more than references to the ubiquitous portraits garnishing public buildings. There is one slightly shocking reference to awkward social elements being ‘liquidated’. What is foregrounded is the military preparedness of the country, its massive industrial capabilities, large amounts of which are beyond the Ural mountains and therefore out of the reach of Germany. Much of the heavy industry can easily be converted to the war effort. And their troops are well-trained, well-prepared for action. A fair amount of this flies in the face of what we now know: Stalin’s refusal to believe the blindingly obvious German preparations for invasion and the country’s consequent chaos when war did finally break out, and the rush to move as much industry and production away from the German advance…

The idealism and the patriotism of the Soviet people is played up, as is women’s major contribution to the economy; there is much praise for the massive and rapid industrialisation and general modernisation of the country in the previous decade, and the master-minding of this is attributed to Stalin’s foresight. The picture of the genuine idealism of many Russians, especially the young, is borne out by later stories of their heroism and their suffering during the Great Patriotic War. As propaganda, such aspects are carefully presented, and the writer is also clear to admit what he doesn’t get to see, what he is not allowed to see, what he isn’t told, and the questions which those he meets are unable to answer…

All-in-all this was a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished world, and also a reminder of the genuine idealism of many as they strove to build a new and better society. Everyone knows of the excesses, abuses and mass repressions and murders of the Stalinist era; no-one can or should make any excuses or apologies for them, and yet the desire of, and commitment to, a different and better world, by so many ordinary people, should not have been lost…

Ella Maillart: Ti-Puss

October 23, 2020

     I’ve long enjoyed the travel writings and photography of the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart (you can find reviews elsewhere on this blog if you’re interested) and this, as far as I’ve been able to find out, is chronologically the next to last of her books, dating from her time in India during the Second World War. By this time, she had largely moved on from roaming far and wide around the globe and the focus of her personal journey had moved inwards: in India, she explored Hindu philosophy and spirituality under various teachers, and remained in the country for a number of years, and subsequently returned regularly,

Ti-Puss is a curious little book, largely focused on Maillart’s deep relationship with an Indian street cat which she adopts, and through this relationship she learns and writes much about love, affection, attachment and separation, in personal as well as spiritual ways.

She is clearly familiar with India and some of its ways, having already been there some two years before she meets and takes up with her new companion, and we see a genuine affection develop, which appears mutual – and we all know how independent cats are! The very idea of a cat as a pet or companion is a very unusual concept in India and Maillart is aware of being perceived as self-indulgent, but clearly craves and needs the closeness. From reading all her books (and I’m aware that these are not necessarily any clue to the wholeness of a life) I’m unaware of any similar attachment to another person…

What she learns at this stage of her journey is largely mediated through life with the cat. She is as descriptive as ever: in the days when travel was relatively limited, photography a complex and quite expensive process, and television in its infancy, a writer’s ability to create a real sense of being somewhere still largely depended on the skilful use of words. We also have brief accounts of some of her discussions with various sages, as well as mentions of other westerners who seem to be on variations of a similar journey to hers. Again Maillart embeds herself as far as possible in the local way of life, habits and routines, and this has always seemed natural in all of her travels. Clearly as a published writer and relatively privileged European she has sources of income, but she remains true to the way in which she had begun some twenty or more years previously, immersing herself in her surroundings and observing people and places very closely.

As I said before, the cat is at the core of the book, and when Maillart leaves her for two weeks to go climbing in the Himalayas, the cat finally asserts her independence, and the sense of loss, at leaving the cat behind and never knowing what has become of her, is genuinely moving, even painful – if you’ve ever been a cat-owner, you will know what I mean. Although it’s a good read, I would have liked to know more about the places and the spiritual quest, too…

Nicolas Offenstadt: Le Pays Disparu

October 12, 2020

     As a teenager I travelled twice through the GDR en route to Poland. It was a weird experience – almost empty motorways, which were the original autobahns built by Hitler, and certainly showing their age by the 1970s. No stopping allowed; strict border checks; enormous and beautiful transit visas in our passports; compulsory driving insurance that was completely useless to us… now you can drop in and visit the museum that was the enormous car and lorry checkpoint at Helmstedt/Marienborn, completely deserted.

Offenstadt’s book – only available in French, and I don’t imagine a translation is very likely – is a very thorough and timely exploration of how an entire country has been thrust into the 1984 memory-hole, erased deliberately from existence, and the reasons for this are also touched upon.

The GDR was not just a dictatorship; as a workers’ and peasants’ state it was conscious of, and proud of, its connections with the workers’ movements and history from the pre-Nazi days. It was very easy and convenient for the triumphalist West to label it as one dictatorship following on another, eliding Nazism and Stalinism, and to completely gloss over what the GDR achieved in forty years of existence. Clearly it ultimately failed as a state, though the final push came from outside; economically it was unable to satisfy all its citizens’ wants and needs, and it watched over them as closely as does China or North Korea today, and it killed people trying to leave ‘illegally’, but it enjoyed successes in many areas and also the loyalty of many of its citizens, as Offenstadt amply documents. But the West ‘won’, and the victors had the power to de-legitimise the predecessor.

Offenstadt is an urban explorer as well as rather obsessed by the disappeared country. His is a full, serious and thoroughly documented work, based upon personal exploration and a wide range of interviews and conversations with former-GDR citizens. It is important that he goes so much deeper than the trite Western picture of an economically failed state, and an economic system that allegedly cannot work, a picture that deliberately throws the baby out with the bathwater for its own ideological reasons. Equally, he does not slip into sentimental ‘Ostalgia’ and is conscious of his rather curious status of very interested non-German.

The GDR was not a warmongering 12-year nightmare like Nazi Germany, but a country that rebuilt after the Second World War along totally different lines from its Western counterpart, and without the massive financial support of the USA. It was a country for 45 years, for its citizens to grow up and live in, make lives and careers in, to build and be proud of, and Offenstadt catalogues the advantages it gave its citizens, particularly in terms of women’s rights, childcare, education, employment and housing, many of which were lost when the two Germanies were ‘re-united’. Increasingly there are historians who judge that actually it was another anschluss, an annexation of a weaker state by a more powerful one.

Interestingly, Offenstadt advances the idea that the Federal Republic’s drive to remove all trace of the GDR (and he catalogues the removing of plaques, statues, the re-naming of streets, schools and public buildings, the closing down of institutions, demolition of landmarks and much, much more) and play up the evils of the Stasi as reflecting back on its earlier almost complete failure in the de-Nazification process after the Second World War…

It was an interesting and useful read, though in the end perhaps a little too detailed when it came to the eradication of plaques and monuments to the various celebrities of the GDR, and it’s a shame that the photographs reproduced so poorly in what is a mass-market paperback, but these are minor gripes, and I’ve yet to come across a similar work on the GDR in English…

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