Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018


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:

This is getting just a little ridiculous

January 31, 2018

Is there anything better about what I do, compared with watching TV every night, binge-watching box-sets, playing computer games for hours? Am I any the better or wiser for all this hoovering up of knowledge? Surely I’m just frittering my life away like everyone else does?

What got me this evening was realising that I have a reading list longer than the rest of my life, and it’s growing; occasionally I joke with friends that I’m saving this or that activity or place to visit ‘for my next existence’, and it has become no joking matter. Currently I’m re-reading Je suis de nulle part, a sort of biography of Ella Maillart (see my last post) by a contemporary admirer of hers. It’s reminded me I need to re-read Oases Interdites, her account of travels in China and India in the 1930s, and then also News From Tartary by Peter Fleming, as the two made the same journey together and wrote different and equally fascinating accounts of it. Then, as Maillart travels to Afghanistan with her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach, I fell the need to re-read her account of the same journey, and also several more books of hers that I haven’t yet read; so far I’ve resisted the temptation to order them all…

And then it turns our that Maillart knew Erika and Klaus Mann; I read Erika Mann’s fictionalised account of the gradual Nazification of her homeland last year and wrote about it, then took Klaus Mann’s autobiography down from the shelf – bought in 1987 and still unread! But now I want to read that, and, of course that reminded me of Stefan Zweig, and I have been wanting to go back to his autobiography for a while now…

You can see how I might be starting to feel that this is becoming ridiculous. Then I will set all these books up in a pile waiting to tackle them, read a couple and get side-tracked onto something else, and eventually have to put the rest of then away for another time. I’d already mentally made a couple of plans for which book I’ll take away with me to read on my Ardennes walking holiday in April, and will have to revise those plans.

Sometimes, I imagine giving up reading for a year to see what it would be like. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile, I need to calm down and come back to my senses: lying on the sofa with a good book, Bach or Chopin playing, and a bottle of good beer to drink… there’s not much better to do at this time of year.

Ella Maillart: Cette réalité que j’ai pourchassée

January 24, 2018

51D5DJ3YHVL._AC_US218_Every now and then I’m drawn back to Ella Maillart, my favourite travel writer. If you’re interested, you’ll find plenty about her and her books at various places in this blog. My latest re-read is of her letters home to her mother over a period of some twenty years of her travelling.

Although as a Swiss citizen Maillart was spared direct experience of the horrors of the Great War, they were nevertheless common knowledge, and my impression of her early years sailing and travelling is that she was striving to escape Europe, the cradle of such horrors.

Letters home to a parent are inevitably much more personal than more carefully crafted and written travel accounts, composed in peace and quiet rather than dashed off in the hope of catching an occasional postal opportunity from the middle of nowhere. So the letters have an immediacy, almost like extended postcards from a holiday destination at times. There’s not much detail, description or analysis of what she encounters, and in some ways this is quite revealing. Her youth is much more evident, as is her incredible sense of adventure, too. Here is a young woman who is open to all experiences, seemingly carefree in her approach to any journey…

She also seems to be everywhere, because suddenly there is a lapse of time in the sequence of letters and she is no longer writing from the Soviet Union but from Iran, or India. Maillart was more widely travelled than I remember – she did not write about every single trip she made – and her accounts are also a reminder of a very different world from ours today, a world much less dangerous in terms of organised violence and warfare and where entire regions are off-limits to travellers, but at the same time potentially a risky world for the individual traveller because it was less connected, because the stranger was the unknown, and perhaps much more easily attacked and robbed, even killed.

Maillart comes across as completely unfazed by anything, very patient in a time where travel was so much slower and where much waiting was inevitable: she just gets on, enjoys the next adventure, coping with privation and poverty as she shares the lot of those among whom she finds herself.

Writing home was incredibly complicated; letters took incredibly circuitous routes and long periods of time to (possibly) arrive at their destination. Often she sent duplicates via different routes, and in those days it seems that a country’s diplomatic representatives were ready to do rather more to help their citizens than is the impression nowadays.

Maillart lived to the age of 93, and yet her serious travelling life was over before she was half that age. Through these letters perhaps more clearly than in her books, which are discrete accounts in the way that a series of letters is not, we see that ultimately her travels and her personal search turn inwards, as she realises that what she has been seeking through movement is actually more likely to be found in the stillness within herself. Reflecting on the fortune of her homeland being spared the horrors of the Second World War, she nevertheless took herself far away from Europe, to several years of contemplation in India. Not only is her travel writing fascinating, but her accumulated wisdom shines though.

Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

51qmqSUU-+L._AC_US218_This was a well-produced book, from the Bodleian Library press (it’s nice to be able to say such a thing nowadays) and Peter Whitfield writes well as he surveys the territory of travel writing over the centuries. It does take a particular skill to know the range and scope of the territory, and then to select and summarise, to compare and comment, keeping everything under control. And there has to be an excellent bibliography – which there is. I have some gripes, which I’ll get on to later. But the book is a must for any serious reader of travel literature as a pointer to where to look next, what one may have missed and so on.

As I have often noticed, Whitfield also sees a progression over time in what has been done and then written about; heroism initially, then exploration; more recently travel and finally, in our day when there are no real unknowns, tourism and mass tourism. Similarly, written accounts have developed in scope, but also moved closer to being guidebooks.

I was pleased to encounter mentions of many writers I’d already read and enjoyed, as well as a few that I shall now be looking out for; a certain amount of downloading of historical texts from Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet Archive took place as I was reading. I also find travel writing eminently listenable-to as I’m driving, hearing about others’ travels as I’m on my own, far more modest trips.

One of the main things Whitfield notices and illustrates is the gradual relinquishing over time – though not probably fully until the last century – of the Westerner’s sense of superiority to the people he meets and the places he visits (for most of the travellers cited are male) and the realisation that the traveller is the foreigner in the lands he visits, rather than the inhabitants. Perhaps this may now seem rather obvious to us, but so much historical, religious and cultural baggage had to be abandoned before the penny dropped, as it were.

From the eighteenth century onwards, travel became more clearly the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many of the least satisfactory accounts come from the nineteenth century, where the colonialist outlook is so much in the foreground, but once that era fades, in the twentieth century we are back with the learning traveller again.

However, curiously, as he approaches modern times, Whitfield’s vision seems to narrow rather, and he often focuses more on novelists and writers of fiction than travellers themselves, a side-track which, though occasionally enlightening, I found got in the way and led to gaps, and omissions of travellers I expected to encounter; his travellers became rather more exclusively British, too. I know one has to set boundaries somewhere, but again I found some choices more than a little curious. Things improved as we moved further into the twentieth century and writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris received their due.

In sum: not an easy task by any means; a very useful survey and helpful bibliography, and I’d have liked a few more non-British travellers included.

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

Ella Maillart – photographs

November 21, 2017

Every now and then I get out my collection of large-format books of photographs from the Swiss traveller’s journeys in the East and marvel at them; I’ve just revisited them.

Ella Maillart was an amazing woman in many ways; a sportswoman, skier and sailor at Olympic level (Paris 1924) at a time when few women were doing such things; a solo traveller in all sorts of interesting and dangerous places – the Soviet Union in its early days, China during the Japanese occupation and civil war, and the Middle East and India generally. I don’t think she counts as an explorer, but her travels took her on many dangerous routes, probably rarely if ever trodden by outsiders. She observes, participates and records with understanding and without judgement or superiority.

I have become more intrigued by her Swissness; as I gradually tracked down and read all her books, and collections of photographs, I came to see how she had a completely different perspective on many things. Switzerland was not affected by the Great War, which meant her childhood experiences were rather different from those of most Europeans. I formed the impression that Swiss neutrality let that nation look on shocked and horrified whilst the rest of the continent tore itself to pieces in mutual slaughter, but equally allowed its nationals to move around ways not available to citizens of other countries. Similarly, the nation watched horrified as Europe drifted inexorably towards the action replay of 1939, and Maillart took the decision, being in a position to leave Europe behind, to head east once again; indeed by then her voyages had become increasingly interior and spiritual, and most of the second world war years were spent in India…

This time around, it was her photographs I was revisiting; black and white photos from the days when the art was far more primitive in the sense of dependent on the skills of the artist, rather than the technology as it is today. True, she had a state-of-the-art camera (a Leica) but it’s her selection of subjects – people and places – that enchant. There is a timelessness about many of her images, a sense of being a part of a permanent past where things didn’t change, and for many of the people and places that was true in those days. I was particularly struck by the faces – the inscrutability – of those who were possibly being photographed for the first time in their lives and must have had no conception of what a camera was, or a photo could be…

The books of photos are all good, all hard to track down now; there is some overlap between them, and useful commentary and context, too.E

My travels: R is for Rügen

September 22, 2017

The island of Rügen, off the northeast coast of Germany, is one of the places that’s long been on my ‘must visit’ list, and I’ve finally made it. German friends had recommended it, and there are the famous chalk cliffs that inspired some of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It was a long trek, but really worth it: I’m not sure I can recall more stunning scenery in any other place I’ve been to…

I stayed at Prora, which apart from having beautiful beaches, is home to the Colossus of Prora, Hitler’s holiday camp for 20,000 German visitors at a time, a strip of concrete six-storey blocks which stretches for three miles: it truly is vast. The war broke out before it had a chance to welcome any holiday-makers; parts were used by the German army, then some bits were blown up by the Russians when they overran the area, so two blocks are ruins, but the rest still stand in varying states of repair and disrepair, and they are gradually being transformed into luxury apartments for wealthy German holiday-makers of the 21st century. During the time of the GDR, parts were a training centre for the People’s Army, and part a sort of sanatorium and rehabilitation centre. The history of the place is documented in a fascinating museum on the site which is crammed with memorabilia from the nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-nineties.

The geology of the island is curious, and it’s littered with granite boulders and fields of flint; there are a lot of flint beaches. Near where I stayed was a curiosity and rarity, the feuersteinfelde or flint fields, an area a couple of miles long and half a mile or so wide which was entirely flint, with its own flora. Because of its remoteness, the eastern edges of Rügen are home to primaeval beech forests were never used or exploited, and these now form the Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site; there is much wonderful walking here. And then, of course, there are the famous chalk cliffs, two hundred feet high in places, spectacularly beautiful with their forest covering. Dangerous in many places partly due to sea erosion, and also because of winter frosts causing collapses, the views are stunning as you walk along: glimpses of precipitous, creamy-white cliffs, trees dangling perilously off the edges. Occasionally there are wooden staircases which allow fit walkers to get down to the beach below (and back up again!) and admire the cliffs from below. I could see how the painter was inspired.

On the south-eastern corner of the island lies the Mönchgut peninsula, which is completely different, being far less forested, and also slightly hilly, so that it’s possible to survey the sea and inlets in all directions and get the feeling of being on an island. There, I found a restaurant which offered me “the best poppy-seed cake you’ve ever had in your life”: I tested the hyperbole, and found it to be accurate.

Sadly, large parts of the island I never got to see for lack of time. Many of its villages have ancient redbrick churches, tiny but perfectly formed, and which reminded me of some of the churches in the Romney Marshes in Kent; there are picturesque thatched cottages, and the remains of a number of ancient Slavic fortifications. At times, I was reminded of Cornwall by the sheer touristiness of the place, where every other house is a holiday let, and wondered what it was like in winter, and what life was like for the locals… Other places I visited included Kap Arcona, the most northerly and easterly part of the island, with its lighthouse, and the village of Altenkirchen which has the oldest church on the island; magically, the organist was practising when I visited… this is a holiday I’ll never forget.

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