Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…

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H V Morton: In the Steps of St Paul

June 30, 2018

51iaTd64KmL._AC_US218_This writer’s travel books from the 1930s are often still seen in second-hand bookshops; I read his fascinating travels in the footsteps of Christ a while ago, and was interested finally to come across an affordable copy of this book.

Morton contextualises well: there’s an excellent chronology of figures from the wider Roman world who were Paul’s contemporaries, and this is interesting because we so often read early Christian history in relative isolation from what was going on in the rest of the world at the time. He’s also a true travel writer, for my money: through words he creates vivid visual pictures of the places he visits, and reflects intelligently on them, too. Today’s writers, perhaps too much part of an ever-visual world, often neglect description, I find. However, Morton was also prone to giving free rein to imaginative re-creations of what might have happened in various situations; fine if these are noticed and taken with the proverbial pinch of salt… but he does evoke scenes from two millennia ago most effectively.

One thing I hadn’t fully taken on board was the relative importance of Asia Minor in the world of that time. By Asia Minor is meant today’s Turkey and adjoining countries – the Levant and Greece too. Morton explains how one travelled in those times, and the perils involved, and fills out the picture with references to other classical writers and travellers. It’s also interesting to read of the enthusiasm for the modernising visions and creations of Kemal Ataturk, against the darkening background of contemporary Turkey.

In terms of religious history, the background to Paul’s various epistles to the early churches I found very informative, and I will go back to this should I ever feel the urge to re-read them. I hadn’t known, for instance, that the Galatians were actually marauding Gallic tribes that had wandered far afield and settled in Asia Minor, nor made the connection between the Philippians and the battle of Philippi from another context… Here, Morton’s imagination is useful in enabling the reader to visualise what the earliest days of the development and spread of Christianity might have been like.

It’s impossible not to be a little moved by the story reverently told, even if a good deal is speculation rather than fact, with very little being verifiable. And, although today we tend to judge Paul as misogynistic and authoritarian, as well as anti-sex, contextual background to these attitudes is also enlightening, even if I still find a lot of what he wrote unacceptable.

All-in-all I enjoyed this and would recommend it as a way of broadening one’s understanding of the complexity of the times, and how the early church emerged into the world, no matter what your current judgement may be.

Alexandra David-Neel: With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet

June 18, 2018

41JaZMmXl6L._AC_US218_It was a bit of a surprise to come across and eighty year-old cerise Penguin that clearly hadn’t ever been read: there were some uncut pages near the beginning. I’ve come across quite a few references to Alexandra David-Neel, who travelled widely in the far east and Tibet a century or so ago, and was greatly interested in Buddhism of all kinds, in various travel journals I’ve read, and so was quite looking forward to reading something by her. But this was the wrong book: there is another, which is more generally about her travels, and which I haven’t acquired yet, whereas this was about all sorts of esoteric aspects of Buddhist practice, which (a) I’m not wildly interested in and (b) I found incredibly far-fetched, as well as tedious.

I was mildly interested in how an educated Westerner could come to understand and practise such arcane aspects of the religion, and I was impressed by her genuine interest, curiosity and commitment to further knowledge through lengthy learning and practice.

But I did also find myself wondering if there were ever a traveller from an Eastern land to the West, who had been wowed, for instance, by the Catholic Church, its ceremonies, rites and rituals, monasteries and cathedrals, and the city of Rome itself in such a way… or is this a very early example of a Westerner seeking enlightenment in the East having not found it at home, finding a lack of meaning in Christianity, an emptiness? In which case, what is it that Christianity lacks, that, for instance, Buddhism offers? The book didn’t offer anything here.

A picture of the great primitiveness of Tibet at that time – relatively speaking – comes across in the few passages where she writes about her travels through northern India, the Chinese borderlands, and Tibet itself. Her experiences of various meditation techniques and practices were very interesting, but I’m afraid that much of her description of rites and rituals did make a good deal of Buddhist practice seem pointless, meaningless, even irrational, in the same way that an outsider viewing much of Catholic ritual might fail to see the point. It’s not that I’m anti-religion, for I’m not, but I’m interested in seeing behind the superficial, and understanding what people are really looking for, and have the impression that ritual gets in the way, or obscures. A frustrating skim-read in the end, though I will still look out for her other book.

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…

My travels: L is for Luxembourg

April 28, 2018

I fell in love with Luxembourg years ago. I don’t mean the capital city, which is small, and has a couple of good bookshops and some astonishing eighteenth century fortifications, as well as a stunning site, to recommend it; I mean the countryside – the forests and hills of the Ardennes and its stunning walking. Now I seem to go back each spring for what has become a combination of a walking holiday and a retreat, a couple of weeks of peace and quiet in the hills.

I have to admit, of course, that my picture of the country is a romanticised one. It’s small – perhaps the size of Greater London, roughly; a lot smaller than Yorkshire, which I call home. Some friends remind me that it’s home to a huge tax-avoidance economy; this is true, and yet, as far as I know, Luxembourg hasn’t bombed Syria or invaded Iraq or Afghanistan recently… the country’s motto is ‘we want to stay the way we are’, conservative with a small ‘c’, and when I fantasise about living there and being able to do all the wonderful walks all year round, I remind myself of what living in such a small, catholic, conservative and conformist society might be like. There doesn’t seem to be very much for young people to do, and only the capital and a couple of other towns would seem to offer much in the way of cultural attractions. It would probably be both dull and stifling. But the public transport is stunning – a four-euro ticket takes you anywhere in the country, on bus or train, for a whole day!

But, the walking is stunning, and seemingly unknown to us English; in season the place fills up with the Dutch heading for the nearest hills to home. What I like is the fact that the hills are relatively gentle – although that doesn’t exclude some gruesomely steep ascents, particularly at the start of walks – and also largely wooded, which I find particularly attractive because it means that I often come across surprise views after turning a corner: suddenly an unexpected panorama opens up. And then there are the colours, so many varieties of greens and browns at the time of year when everything is just bursting into life after winter. There are the streams and rivers winding through the valleys, and occasional glimpses of wildlife – deer, wild cattle, wolves even – and the birds.

It’s so peaceful, too, at the time of year when I go. I can park the car, put my boots on and in five minutes be far away from the village or town, up in the hills where the only sounds are the birds and the crunch of my feet on the path. I’m away with my thoughts and the wonders of nature, at peace.

The country is a maze of way-marked paths, some maintained by the Ministry of the Economy (!) and so pretty clear, others maintained by localities and so rather more variably signposted – so my map-reading and compass skills have improved over the years. And for such a small place, there’s a good bit of variety, too – steep and more rugged further east, along the German border, with rather narrower tracks, and large areas along the western border with Belgium that are being gradually allowed and encouraged to revert to more primeval forest.

It’s as European a place as one can find, which I also find attractive, being small and on so many borders and crossing points; a third of its population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the inhabitants speak their own language and usually French and German too, if not English as well. I feel comfortable there; I can escape the hecticness of Britain, its woes and insanities, for a few days; I feel calmer and rested even after walking dozens of miles in a weeks or so. I hope I can manage many more spring holidays there…

My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018

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I really liked If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and have read it a couple of times. I wondered why I’d never read Invisible Cities, and something else I was reading recently re-awakened my interest and prompted me to get it and finally read it, and it was marvellous. The concept itself is astonishing: a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which the traveller describes a range of imaginary cities to the great Khan in a series of prose poems. All the cities are named after women, fall into a range of different categories, and are woven symmetrically into the whole. Interspersing the nine chapters of the book are conversations between the pair, reflecting on a range of connected ideas.

I found myself very quickly reminded of Jorge Luis Borges in a number of ways. Firstly, the writing is in short sections or chapters; like poetry, each deals with a single subject, or here, city. And the slightly magical, slightly ethereal style is also reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer, although, of course, my judgement is limited as I can read neither in the original.

Each city is different, disturbing, dislocating; each contains enough in itself, in its own story, to shake you up, make you reflect and ponder. Some will truly enchant you, others will hardly move you at all. At one point the great Khan realises that in each city Marco Polo may be describing a different aspect of Venice, his home city; equally he is contemplating aspects of our life journey in the world. Sometimes a city verges on the truly surreal, in a way in which the language itself seems to lose its meaning – rather along the lines of Ben Marcus‘ bizarre The Age of Wire and String – you read the words, and they are words you can comprehend individually, but the ways in which they are related to each other challenges perception…

Each city is its own prose poem: the cities are weird and the magic of Calvino’s words and images conjures up vivid if implausible, unreal or insane places, at times in a drug-like haze. Many of the places have a very seductive appeal, and even though the travels are going nowhere, for these places do not exist, the magical and haunting lyricism of the cities timelessly suspended in eternity carries you along in a trance.

How does it work? We listen to an intriguing story-teller; we are in the territory of myth; we are travellers visiting unknown places along with him. Words create vivid pictures, and ideas make us think. The ethereal nature of the places and the encounters carry us effortlessly along… and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s a lovely book, and I don’t use that word about many books.

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men on the Bummel

March 3, 2018

51Fi2+wwa4L._AC_US218_Late nineteenth-century humour seems very tame, and a good deal of it relies on gender and national stereotypes that feel very jaded or even unacceptable today. I remember laughing my head off as a child reading Three Men in a Boat, and when a work colleague introduced me to Three Men on the Bummel quite a few years ago, I remember enjoying it. This time round, having been prompted to re-read it by a newspaper article about forgotten books by well-known writers, I found it rather tiresome. Except that, reading and feeling it’s all rather jaded, one suddenly comes across a moment that does make one laugh out loud… and there were a decent few of those.

Three Victorian men, two married and one a confirmed bachelor, leave their wives behind and go for a walking and cycling holiday in Germany. It’s suitably, if mildly chaotic, and full of the usual mishaps and misunderstandings. A great deal of the humour derives from each other’s faults and failings as seen by the others, and from quick-fire conversations which seem to be the forebear of modern stand-up comedy.

There’s a lot of rambling and digressing from the main idea, which feels a bit like padding, covering a wide range of topics, gently mocking of both England and the English, and foreigners. Jerome easily finds the occasion for fun in the Germans’ perceived penchant for tidiness, neatness and order. There are long drawn-out anecdotes based on linguistic misunderstandings; overall the tone struck me as rather flat, too even, lacking variation.

When I tried to think about what had disappointed me, I think it was hindsight, in a way: in 1900 it was easy to make fun of Germans being sticklers for law and authority, with rules for everything and penalties and fines for infringements; after seeing the effect of this on a global scale twice in the twentieth century such national proclivities somehow seem rather uneasy or inappropriate sources of humour… Germans are bred to obey anything with buttons, he says at one point. Humour is a funny thing in more ways than one. And I feel minded to look up Mark Twain‘s accounts of travel in Germany to see if he makes me feel the same way.

Peter Fleming: News From Tartary

March 2, 2018

510EcZdDwsL._AC_US218_It was good to come back to this classic travel account from the 1930s, a journey through the unknown from Peking (as it was then called) to India, through wild and lawless territories, during various Chinese civil wars, without real authority and never knowing whether one might be turned back at any point… whilst making one’s way through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

Fleming was a correspondent for The Times, and had made several other interesting and arduous journeys previously; he has that gung-ho British upper-class game-for-anything approach, without being a twit, and on this journey he travelled with the Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart, for the sole reason that they both wanted to make the journey, and thought it might be easier for them to succeed together; they survived the seven months that it took, and seem to have made a decent team, at least from Fleming’s account. It is clear how his admiration of her stamina and capacity for organisation and endurance – from an amateur like himself to the professional Ella, as he himself puts it – increasingly impressed him. I shall, sometime soon, re-visit her account of the same journey in Oasis Interdites.

It’s clear that the two of them were basically 1930s hippies with a ‘well, let’s go and see what happens’ approach. I am still astonished by the rudimentary nature of the gear that travellers took with them in the past; theirs included marmalade, cocoa, six bottles of brandy and… two typewriters! Fleming closely observes and record the details of their journey, and maintains a philosophical attitude to the possibility of failure. He is urbane, civilised, curious, interested; he takes the time and several chapters to clarify the various Soviet (and British, and Indian and Chinese) machinations going on in Xinjiang province. And he remains calm when faced with interminable waits and delays where they are at the mercies of various officialdoms and dare not insist too much given the inevitable irregularities of their situation… A dry sense of humour keeps him optimistic, and sane. His ode to tsamba, the staple diet of the region, is a masterpiece.

The regions through which they travel are incredibly remote; many people have never seen a European before. Just when you think they cannot head into somewhere more remote, they do. It is a seriously long, dangerous and gruelling journey, of the kind it is no longer possible to make in our times, and it isn’t just the phlegm of a certain kind of Brit, or the organisational capabilities of a more seasoned adventurer, that get them through the two thousand plus miles. It is the urge to do something not done before, to see if it might be possible. On Fleming’s part there is a certain amount of curiosity about the territory and its peoples, and a recognition that this world, so very different from the one he is heading back to, has its attractions despite its arduousness. The last stages of their journey, down into British India – the Raj – are positively surreal, both for the travellers and the reader.

Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

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