Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

My travels: O for Orange

March 17, 2017

I have happy memories of this small town in Provence from my hippy student days; I visited it a number of times. It’s most famous for its stunning Roman theatre built into the side of a hill: the seats are on the hillside, and then facing them, the stage and the immense main facade, in gorgeous golden stone. There is also a modest surviving Roman triumphal arch commemorating I have forgotten what and whom on one of the main roads leaving the town.

On the top of the hill was a pretty basic and very cheap campsite where I spent many happy days and nights – I seem to remember in those days a pitch was about 4 francs a night. My needs were simple in those days; I hitch-hiked with my tent and sleeping bag and few other necessities in a rucksack, and I could walk into town, have my daily ice cream, choose my different cheese-of-the-day, and get the necessary beer, bread and fruit and veg for the next twenty-four hours.

I particularly remember one evening’s adventure. Orange uses its amphitheatre for sumptuous live opera concerts in the summer; one day a Belgian traveller and I sat chatting and working through a bottle of red in the campsite and decided we’d try and sneak through the woods on the hillside into the opera for nothing (as opposed to paying 200 francs for a seat). We didn’t realise that the theatre was guarded by the Foreign Legion whose job was to prevent just what we intended to do; we spent a drunken and merry hour trying to slip past and outwit the legionnaires who were having none of it, of course, and fortunately for us were relatively good-humoured about our escapades; eventually we realised we should give up, and instead chatted about life with some of the legionnaires. Hell, neither of us like opera anyway.

Provence is lovely; I fell in love with it on my trips there. The feel of the heat, and the smells are special, the landscape beautiful. And I saw hoopoes in the campsite at Orange, the only place I’ve ever come across them in the wild. Orange is pretty central for a good number of interesting places in Provence. Avignon is not far, and I have fond memories of rambling around Mont Ventoux, and exploring the amazing place which is Vaison-la-Romaine: the mediaeval town perched on the steep hill, the vast Roman town below, and the modern-day French country town with its market alongside.

My travels: N for (Grotte de) Niaux

March 17, 2017

240px-Niaux,_bisonsI don’t think I fully realised what I was seeing when I was taken to the Grotte de Niaux when I was seventeen. There are caves in southern France and northern Spain where our stone age ancestors lived many thousands of years ago, and as part of their culture drew wonderful drawings, painted fantastic paintings of their hunts and their prey, pressed their inked palm-prints onto cave walls. I’ve read fascinating and hair-raising accounts of the cave explorers who first found, mapped and explored these caves nearly a century ago.

Nowadays, visits to such places are strictly limited, if not actually impossible; replica caves and replica paintings have been built there for tourists to visit in safety and comfort, and so that the originals can be preserved for the future. Even forty-five years ago, before such replicas were constructed, only a small number of visitors were allowed into the actual caves at any one time: the paintings were at risk from the very warmth of our breath and its dampness, which would eventually have resulted in the growth of lichens and other things on the cave walls and the paintings, eventually destroying them. We had to carry acetylene lamps, which give off very little heat, but which also provided scant illumination. I think the guide was allowed something more useful in order to be able to point out things to us. The darkness, the silence and the stillness helped but it was very hard to get my mind around those twenty or thirty thousand years that separated the oh so sophisticated teenager from his ancient forebears; I remember a feeling of awe something like that which I experience when looking up at the stars, and although now my memories of the visit are quite faint, I do have a couple of postcards which show some of those marvellous paintings and drawings: human handprints, animals leaping, hunting.

My travels: L for Liverpool

March 2, 2017

I think I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived on my first visit, for a university interview: there was cheerful music playing over the loudspeaker system at Lime Street Station, and I never looked back. The interview was a breeze and the offer a doddle and so that’s where I ended up, doing my first degree and also my PGCE, before moving away.

I lived in various different parts of the city: halls of residence (now demolished, I recently learned) on the Greenbank site, then a house about a mile away from which we did a midnight flit after the immersion heater had exploded in the sitting room; just off Edge Lane, and then a couple of years above a florist’s in Anfield, which I loved.

Things about the city: all the Beatles associations – Penny Lane opposite the halls of residence, the glass onion in Sefton Park; the parks themselves, the amazing eateries in various different places, the pubs… the gents’ in the Philharmonic, and Ye Cracke on Rice Street, where we used to hang out in the War Office… the pub-crawl we did on results day. The ferry over the Mersey and forays into darkest Birkenhead where a friend and I would each buy bin-bags full of cheap science fiction to read.

Culturally Liverpool was wonderful: there was the Everyman Theatre, in its old guise and then done up, where I saw so many amazing plays, and ate so many wonderful lunches, and the Bluecoat Gallery where there was a cinema club in which I spent many happy hours getting to know the films of many countries and directors, and eventually there was the marvellous, the surreal Liverpool School of Music Dream and Pun (or something like that!) set up by Ken Campbell, where I enjoyed many bizarre theatrical experiences, including the world premiere of the Illuminatus Trilogy (I still have my handwritten ticket issued by Ken himself). And lots of great concerts in the Mountford Hall at the university.

I’m sure my memories are largely happy ones because my time there coincided with those years of freedom when I was a student, without many cares in the world and in receipt of a grant which paid me to lie on my bed and read books and think about them. And Liverpool did have its grim sides: being burgled, the acquaintance who woke up one morning to find a corpse on the doorstep, the awful poverty in some areas of the city… But I remember the city and its cheerful inhabitants with affection; it will be time to go back soon: there’s an Otto Dix exhibition in the autumn…

My travels: L for languages

January 23, 2017

Not a place, I know, but an integral part of my travelling. I’m prompted to write this post after a real shock today. I’m part of a French conversation group which meets fortnightly to chat in French, as a way of keeping up our fluency with the language as well as to share stories and knowledge of that country’s culture. And from a visitor, we learned that a local secondary school with a very good reputation and the largest associated sixth form in the country – some 1200 students – has just three dozen, across two years, studying a modern foreign language. Five of these are boys, apparently. I was horrified.

I’ve written before about my encounters with different languages from my earliest days, and my fascination with them, of my good fortune in having an excellent French teacher at school and the moment of epiphany when I realised I could communicate in that language, with it native speakers.

One of the reasons my travels are relatively limited, compared with those of many other people I meet, I have realised, that it’s important to me to be able to communicate while I travel, rather than remain in a tourist bubble, hoping someone will be able to speak English. I know that’s not a very helpful approach in that it cuts a lot of the world out; I don’t rule out going to countries whose language I don’t speak, and I also know that people in other countries are often very keen to practise their English. And yet it seems natural, or useful to be able to ask for directions or other information of a passer-by, or in a tourist office, to be able to join up with a guided tour at a place I happen to be visiting, to chat at the till in a shop or supermarket. And when out walking, casual or chance encounters can develop into an hour to two’s companionship…

I’ve also realised that as a Brit who has the steering wheel on the wrong side of his car, and has to drive on the wrong side of the road while in Europe, that the ability to understand the roadside furniture is one of the things that helps with the slight strangeness of driving there: I’m in France so I do French and that includes driving French-style, if you see what I mean.

Clearly I can manage in France, and that means Belgium, too (once a Flemish-speaker realises you are a foreigner rather than a francophone Belgian being rude, you are OK, though I can just about get by in Flemish), and parts of Luxembourg and Switzerland. French also helped me in Morocco many years ago. I’m okay, if a little rusty and ungrammatical, in German, and that does for the rest of Luxembourg, Austria and some other bits of Switzerland. I used to be able to get by in Italian. I have a project for a tour of Spain, and am very much enjoying the challenge of learning Spanish at the moment. I’m seriously lacking confidence in that terribly complicated language which is Polish, and have relied on people there speaking English or translating for me. I don’t like this; I can understand quite a lot of the language, but constructing sentences of my own is very hard indeed.

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When a teacher offering career advice to students, I would always point out the advantages to be gained by pursuing study of a language to degree level, and the spectacular opportunities that could offer themselves to those who had two foreign languages and English as their mother-tongue; some students took my advice and I don’t know of any who regretted it. Sadly, of course, the goalposts have recently been moved, and on reflection I now think that if I were able to rewind the clock, I would move abroad…

It is hard to put into words – even for a former English teacher – the fun and the pleasure that my engagement with languages has given me over the years, and how much it has enhanced my enjoyment of my travels: a dish or a drink recommended here, a place to go and visit suggested there, extra help or advice from a tourist office or a guide, a friendly conversation that rounds off a pleasant day. It’s hard living on an island.


My travels: H for hitch-hiking

January 21, 2017

Students didn’t have much money in my day; true, you were given some, in the form of a grant, rather than lent more to saddle you with debt at an early age as today’s students are, and you could sign on as available for work and claim supplementary benefit during all the vacations. This was in the days before cheap coach travel and the invention of the student rail card, so a goodly number of us resorted to hitch-hiking as a means of travel. It cost you the bus fare to the edge of a city and then thumb out, with a destination sign to be helpful if you were organised, and off you went… Some days you were lucky and reached your goal as quickly as if you had been on a train, other days it was a slow and painful collection of short lifts, perhaps standing for ages in poor weather.

But most of the time it was fun: I met lots of interesting people who stopped to give me lifts, both lorry drivers and car drivers. Conversations were interesting: justifying one’s existence as a student of English Literature to a lorry-driver who was supporting me through his taxes could be a challenge… My one regret was I never got a lift in a Rolls: I met several people who had. I’m aware that it was probably safer for males, particularly travelling alone as I did most of the time; nevertheless I did meet solo female hitchers fairly often, and they always got picked up first. And in all my years of hitching – about ten, in all – I can only recall two dodgy lifts.

I used to hitch around Western Europe during my summer holidays. It was relatively easy in Holland and Germany, OK in Belgium although the police were quite heavy about where you happened to be standing, and in France it was very variable: it could take ages to get anywhere, or it could be very quick, but lorry drivers never picked you up; I gather this was something to do with insurance over there. There was a great feeling of freedom: with my necessary worldly goods – tent, sleeping bag, snacks and water – in a rucksack, I’d set off in the morning with an idea of where I intended to get by the evening, but willing to be flexible. I sometimes encountered great adventures: once, heading north from Provence I got a lift with several students, intending to stop off and look at Montelimar. I was told Montelimar was dull and boring (I really don’t know, as I’ve never been there) and invited to join them for a few days up in the mountains of Savoie. Why not, I thought? And had a marvellous time, ate fondue for the first time, went above the snow-line for the first time, stayed in a lovely free campsite near the Italian border, and did some marvellous walking.

I’ve been fed for nothing, offered spare beds for the night, discovered places I’d never otherwise have gone to, had fascinating conversations, spent a drunken evening trying to outwit the French Foreign Legion (not on my own, I had a drunken Belgian companion)… it was truly a marvellous way to travel, meet people and have fun.

And then suddenly, there were cheap coaches, student train fares and Thatcherism, and almost all the hitch-hikers seemed to disappear, certainly in Britain. And as I got older and slightly wealthier I managed to be able to run a small cheap car, and kept a look out for kindred spirits, but found very few of them…

My travels: H for Halton

January 21, 2017

Halton is the only other village I’ve ever lived in, apart from Easton-on-the-Hill. For someone who has now lived half his life in Yorkshire, and feels entitled to Yorkshire citizenship from my East Riding mother, I have a strong affection for Lancashire, where I lived for all of four years. A lot of this has to do with the cheese – those who know me will understand! – for me only Stilton can rival strong Lancashire cheese from the city’s market, among English cheeses.

I moved to read for my MA at Lancaster University and found myself living in this small village a couple of miles outside the city, an easy walk home after late nights up to no good in the city itself. Countless times I walked back through the pitch-black night, down the track to Denny Beck and across the single-track bridge into the village.

The village lies on the Lune, a lovely river, and the starting place of many walks in those happy and carefree student years. There were footpaths on both sides of the river, as well as the dismantled railway track, and Caton, the Crook o’Lune and Hornby were not that far away. I did those walks countless times in all the seasons of the year. In the other direction, as I recall, the coast at Bolton-le-Sands and Hest Bank were similarly close.

The village had two very friendly pubs – probably still does – which enjoyed our regular custom; there was a grocer’s, newsagent’s and a post office, so everything was catered for; two bus routes linked it to the city. There was a village church which I visited, because I always do, but I can recall nothing about it at all. Our house was cosy, comfortable, and where I fell in love with attics; since then whenever it has been possible I have had an attic man-cave.

I can’t really separate Halton from Lancaster itself; there was the university where I learned about research, and Lancaster Community Project where I worked as a volunteer for a couple of years – a community playgroup, cafe, bookshop and wholefood shop, and where my vegetarianism was conceived and consolidated. All-in-all, my time there was important in turning me into who I have become, shaping different aspects of me and my life, and I remember my time there with great affection.

My travels: G for Gdansk

January 19, 2017

Gdansk is probably one of my most favourite cities anywhere. I first went there on my very first visit to Poland at the age of fifteen, so way back in the days of the communist People’s Republic; this was also round about the time when I first came across it as the setting for Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, in its pre-war incarnation as the Free City of Danzig.

It’s a coastal city and major port, on the mouth of the Vistula river, with a beautiful historic centre, featuring many gates, towers, streets of merchants’ houses, mills and of course, churches, including St Mary’s, which counts as one of the largest – if not the largest – brick Gothic churches in the world: it really is colossal, both from the outside and within. One of the things of which I’ve learnt in my travels around northern Poland is the brick Gothic church trail, which stretches all the way from Belgium to Russia: in England there were copious supplies of stone to be quarried for church-building in mediaeval times, but in northern Europe there weren’t, and so bricks had to be used; coming from England one perhaps has the impression that basic brick is a fairly ugly, utilitarian or pedestrian material from which to build a place to the glory of God, but needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and there is actually an incredible wealth of really beautiful churches to be seen…

Gdansk is now also home to its very own Shakespeare Theatre and annual festival: apparently, in Shakespeare’s time, when the London theatres were closed by the plague, as they often were, Shakespeare’s company visited Gdansk and performed there a number of times, although there is no record that the dramatist himself ever went with them. And following in the footsteps of London’s Globe Theatre, the Poles recently succeeded in completing their own tribute to those times.

Why do I like it so much? It’s a walker’s city, with beautiful views along and across its many waterways which give that part of it a very spacious feel; strolling down the streets of merchants’ houses there is so much to see in the architecture and decoration – all the buildings are painted; it’s a city full of history and monuments. There is the famous Polish Post Office, which held out at the start of the Second World War and is immortalised in Grass’ novel, the site at Westerplatte where the Polish garrison withstood German fire for days that September, and of course the famous shipyards that were the site of the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in the early 1980s. There are also a couple of excellent micro-breweries.

It was Grass’ novel which fed my interest in the city over the years. The Tin Drum, and its sequels Cat and Mouse and Dog Years, are rooted in the past incarnation of the city as much as Joyce’s Ulysses is embedded in Edwardian Dublin. The Free City of Danzig, created by the treaties at the end of the Great War, lay at the mouth of the mighty Vistula river and on the edge of the infamous Polish Corridor, which granted the new nation access to the sea. You can follow the adventures of Oscar Matzerath and his family and acquaintances on a pre-war map; although the city had to be rebuilt post-1945 and all its streets, places and monuments acquired Polish names, these are for the most part the exact counterparts of their pre-war names; the city was both German and Polish, and in some ways Grass’ novels are as much of an elegy to a lost world as are novels like Lampedusa’s The Leopard or Roth’s The Radetzky March. Today’s citizens of Gdansk realise that Grass is an asset for the tourist trail; there is a Tin Drum restaurant, and various places associated with Grass’ childhood are marked out for the visitor.

It is a wonderful place, one to which I hope to return again and to spend more time exploring.

My travels: E for Easton-on-the-Hill

January 13, 2017

Easton-on-the-Hill has always seemed an odd name for the village where I was born, mainly because whenever we approached it, from Stamford, we went downhill into it… back in the day it was actually in Northamptonshire, but now is in East Northamptonshire (whatever that may be). County borders are quite complicated there, as Stamford is at the boundary of five counties. It’s one of the beautiful villages in the area because of the colour of the local stone, and also the famous Collyweston stone slate roofs: Collyweston is the next village along, only a couple of miles away and a scene of dread to my sister and I when we were very young, for it was the site of the ‘prick shop’, ie the local clinic where we had to go for our vaccinations…

I have happy memories of this village where I lived for five years; the family next door, the eccentric old lady two doors down, the little sweet shop a couple of doors in the other direction. There was also a small, fairly stagnant pond a little way beyond our house. There was a post office and a bakery further up the village, and a bus service to the town, which I got to use on Sundays when it was a treat for my dad and I to come back from church on the bus, and later, when I started school I had to go into town and back on the bus, though this was only for a term, for then we moved into Stamford itself. There’s a small monument to Polish paratroopers from the Second World War; my father spent some time stationed near there during the war, which is probably why this was my home village. It’s two miles from the town, a walk that I had to do every Friday while quite small, there and back as my mother went to the market; a bag of broken biscuits from Woolworths under the pram cover (my sister being in the pram) sustained me on the homeward leg.

I think I know the village better now than I did then, as it’s on a really pleasant circular walk from Stamford itself, a walk which does take you seriously uphill, and past the ancient and rather beautiful parish church – Anglican, of course, so as Catholics we never had anything to do with it when we lived there – largely twelfth century, I think, and quite modest in itself, timeless in the way it is surrounded by its graveyard, and the aisles within are very worn down by the feet of worshippers over the centuries. Quintessentially English. There’s a memorial in the church to a Norman knight, probably one of the Conqueror’s crew, with the inscription in Norman French. It’s a very quiet and peaceful place, and if I ever do the walk I always spend a few minutes in the church, in the Philip Larkin manner: ‘It pleases me to sit in silence here…’

I’ve always tended to romanticise village life; as long as you’re within a couple of miles of a town, it’s bearable, but further than that and I think the disadvantages begin to tell…

My travels: D for Deauville

January 11, 2017

Please do not be concerned if certain letters of the alphabet are missing: they may appear eventually!

I spent a year living in Normandy as a student; for my year abroad as part of my degree, I was named as assistant to the Lycee in Deauville. I think I was a hit with some of my students, but not really with the school as I was in the middle of my hippy phase, so not all that serious about things. But I had a marvellous time actually living in France, as opposed to merely being on holiday; clearly you can learn a lot more about a country and its way of life. I have wondered at times about living in France; if I could turn back the clock I might seriously contemplate it, but I would not want a career as a teacher there…

Deauville was – probably still is – an incredibly wealthy town, with its own international film festival, a casino, racecourse, and lots of very flashy hotels and shops, and expensive weekend and holiday villas, being only an hour and a half from Paris, so it tended to be very quiet during the week and crowded at the weekends. It was a newish town, with nothing architecturally interesting; Honfleur just up the road with its picturesque harbour and old buildings, and Caen with William the Conqueror’s castle a little further along, were the sight-seeing spots. But it had a wonderful bookshop with a friendly Polish proprietor who I drank with, and who ensured I got my weekly fix of English newspapers, the school was on the beach – which was swept by an enormous machine every day! – and the views out to sea were phenomenal, especially at times of bad weather. It was the summer of 1976, the best and hottest summer I’ve ever known; I did take some of my classes on the beach, and came back with a really good tan. And then there was Trouville, the real town, the historic town as painted by various impressionists, literally across the river, on the other side of the Touques

I had to wrestle with French bureaucracy, needing both a carte de sejour and a bank account; I also needed to feed myself at weekends, as the school’s internat only functioned Monday to Friday. But I was incredibly well-fed during the week: the school had a proper chef and we got a traditional Normandy diet, very rich, with lots of cream. The only things I found repugnant were tripe, and white pudding. One evening we even had souffle! And for the teachers, free beer at lunchtime.

I saw a fair amount of Normandy, and came to love the lush green landscapes, and the cheeses that came from such rich pastures. Devon, only more so. Not many things in my eating list are to die for, but a well-ripened Pont l’Eveque comes pretty close… I got used to the accent and I think it permanently affected the way I speak French, too. And Paris was only just over an hour away on the train, which was a bonus…

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