Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

Fitzroy Maclean: A Person from England

June 9, 2019

51CDaOHf69L._AC_UL436_  A fascinating piece of ‘old school’ travel writing from over sixty years ago, focusing on the ‘Great Game’ of the Victorian era as Britain vied with Russia for influence over Central Asia, the Russians expanding and consolidating their empire and the British looking over their shoulder at the possible threat to India… and nobody managing to do anything effective in Afghanistan – no change there, then.

Maclean tells the stories of a number travellers who got into all sorts of scrapes, particularly if they managed to reach the fabled goal of the emirate of Bukhara. English arrogance astonishes, as does the gung-ho approach to non-British peoples, their laws, beliefs and customs; there is an over-weening pride in Britain, British arms, Christianity. The account of an eccentric clergyman who travels to Bukhara in an attempt to free two captive English officers reads like a Boys’ Own Paper story, such an implausible yarn it seems to be. Alas, the officers have been beheaded before he arrives…

We do learn about the dangers and difficulties facing travellers at that time, crossing territories known to locals but not to outsiders; the Russians also encounter unexpected challenges in their advance, and some of these are documented by an intrepid American reporter. Gradually the entire of Central Asia does fall under Russian suzerainty; they are keen to have the territory pacified and under control so that they can move about freely, but are not that concerned with actually ruling it.

The author’s own attempts to get to Bokhara in 1938, and his tales of evading the NKVD in his efforts, are most entertaining, and sadly, when he returns twenty years later, much of the old attractiveness of Central Asia seems to have gone forever. A good, easy and entertaining read: Maclean writes well.

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My travels – Luxembourg again

May 22, 2019

I’ve nicely got back from my annual walking holiday in Luxembourg, and while I was there tried to understand why I’m so fascinated with the place and why I like it so much. It’s small – about the size of Yorkshire, where I live, more or less. It’s full of hills, small mountains, rivers, brooks and forests, all of which combine to make beautiful walking terrain, and the country is networked with hundreds, if not thousands of generally well-waymarked and maintained trails, usually circular walks; parking is easy and free. Next year all public transport in the country will be free for everyone: there is an excellent network, and many of these walks are easily accessible by bus and train. Overall I have the impression of a nation that thinks its worthwhile spending money on public amenities, unlike somewhere else I know… Near Echternach I saw a newly-planted orchard which has been specifically established to preserve all the old, local varieties of apples and pears. There’s a bee sanctuary attached…

Not that many people live there, so it’s not crowded. About 40% of the population are of foreign origin, largely Portuguese and Italian. The standard of living is high, roads and public buildings are well-maintained, and they spend serious money on public amenities – there are wonderful children’s playgrounds wherever you go, seats and picnic tables abound along the walking trails, as do litter-bins, which are regularly emptied, and there are display boards with posters depicting the flora and fauna to inform the passing walker. It feels like a conservative (with a small ‘c’) country; it’s national motto translates as “We want to stay the way we are”. Yes, I know it’s a tax haven that makes a good deal of its wealth that way, and whilst I don’t approve of that, nor do I approve of countries like ours that make enormous amounts of money from flogging weapons of death to all and sundry around the world. I found myself feeling alternately angry and sad, that other countries can do all of these useful and sensible things I’ve mentioned, and ours can not.

Luxembourg has its own language – Letzburgetsch – a curious hybrid of elements of French, German and Dutch, and the natives are also fluent in either French or German (or both) according to whether they live in the east or west of the country. They are proud of their history, and wherever you go, there are museums and memorials to the suffering the country endured under the Nazi occupation, when it was formally annexed to the Reich, meaning that young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, and you see graves which commemorate locals who perished on the Eastern Front. Resistance and civil disobedience was ruthlessly crushed: a strike in the town of Wiltz saw several teachers from the local secondary school shot, among others. And then large parts of the country were flattened during the Battle of the Ardennes in late 1944 and early 1945, when the worst of the civilian suffering also happened.

On a personal note, I realised that I have many happy memories of holidays taken there when our children were young, and the walking and exploring we did then. I hope to be able to take my annual holiday there for many years to come: certainly there are plenty more walks awaiting…

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!

Artur Domosławski: Ryszard Kapuściński – A Life

March 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Atkins: The Immeasurable World

January 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horatio Clare: Something of his Art

December 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas books

December 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Travel writing recommendations

December 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three Voyages of Willem Barents

December 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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