Archive for the 'travel writing' Category

John Morris: Traveller from Tokyo

June 26, 2017

51pZmjS9F+L._AC_US218_I’ve mentioned the cerise Penguin series of travel and adventure writing before in these pages; they date from the 1940s and 1950s and were, I presume, later superseded by the Penguin Travel Library. They presented some amazing accounts of travel and exploration, and I always look out for them when I visit second-hand bookshops. Because they date from the early days of paperbacks, and also because many of them were published under wartime restrictions, on very poor quality paper, they are quite rare, and often quite fragile.

I bought John Morris’ account on a whim, realising I’d never read anything about travel to or in Japan, and it was a real eye-opener. He was employed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry to teach English at one of Tokyo’s university campuses during the period leading up to and immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and because of his unusual employment status was apparently the only Briton who was not interned when war was declared, whereas all other foreigners he knew were. Eventually he was evacuated through diplomatic channels.

He presents us with a picture of many aspects of Japanese life, language, culture and history as he experienced them in the very early 1940s; it’s a detailed, balanced and thoughtful account, which does recognise the growth of Japanese militarism and its increasing effect on all aspects of society: he can see the growing tensions between Japan and the US. And his account of his personal treatment and growing concerns as he becomes more and more isolated after the start of hostilities is fascinating: he is not ill-treated, though he fears for his friends and colleagues, and since he has treated us earlier to an in-depth account of the vagaries of the Japanese legal and justice system (which starts from the premise of guilt until proven innocent) we can understand those concerns. We are relieved when he is able to leave the country.

There is something special in reading, so many years after the events, and when we have the benefits of hindsight, an account with the immediacy that comes across so strongly and clearly in Morris’ book. It was a really good find, well-written, though, surprisingly for a Penguin book of that vintage, riddled with spelling errors…

Sadly unable to find an illustration of the actual cerise Penguin edition.

My travels: W for Walking

June 7, 2017

I’ve never been one for sport or strenuous exercise: I could have won prizes for skiving at school. And I’ve always firmly believed that the only time it’s necessary to run is to catch a train one might be in danger of missing otherwise… But I’ve always loved walking, from exploring footpaths around my Stamford home in my childhood, to walking and tramping around rural Nottinghamshire when at boarding school – as long as a couple of friends and I took exercise, we were pretty much excused team games, which was marvellous. And we fairly ate up the miles.

Later, as a student, I did some walking in the Lake District with friends who were keen fell-walkers, but I’ve never been wild about that part of the country, and have recently realised that it’s because to me – sorry! – it’s rather grey and bare: I prefer walking in woods and forests where suddenly and unexpectedly an amazing view can reveal itself as I turn a corner, or briefly come out into the open… and I loved the footpaths around the River Lune when I lived in Halton, near Lancaster.

I walked the footpaths in the parks of Leeds and later around Ripon when my daughters were small, and I think I’ve helped pass on a love of walking.

Now that I’m retired, I can do a lot more, and lead my feet farther afield, as it were. I have come to enjoy walking on my own, spending time with my thoughts, reflecting and meditating, and looking carefully at my surroundings, pausing to take time over my photography when I see something worth capturing; all of these are things much harder to do when you are in company. I sometimes think I’m a bit anti-social, but I set out with good intentions of joining local walking groups when I retired and, six years later, have still to do so. I’m a fair weather walker, too – can’t be doing with wind and rain, so mostly it’s spring to autumn, and despite living in Yorkshire, I’ve yet to do much exploring of the Dales or the Wolds.

My favourite walking territory at the moment is the Ardennes, in Luxembourg. There’s an astonishing variety of terrain and landscape in a very small area. There are walks along the border with Germany where you often don’t know what country you are in, and there’s a broad swathe of land along the border with Belgium that is being allowed to return to the wild, and it can be quite spooky in the middle of it all, carefully following a map and a trail and wondering where the next way-marker will be, or whether I’m lost. It feels like being lost in a jungle, especially as it’s quite rare to meet another walker, and yet you can be only a couple of miles from a village.

I’ve walked quite a bit in the Somme region of France, exploring the battlefield sites of the Great War: there are some good walking guides, and everywhere now looks so peaceful, beautiful in places, especially along the river marshlands, that it’s almost impossible to believe the carnage that happened here a century ago. That is, until you come across a small pile of rusting shells at the side of a road or path, waiting for the French equivalent of the bomb disposal squad to pick them up and take them away. They’re not in a hurry – there is 700 years’ (yes!) worth of such work to do in some areas. But you do get a clear picture in your mind, as you walk along sunken paths, or look at the gently undulating and open landscape, of the utter insanity of climbing out of a trench and walking slowly towards enemy lines under machine-gun fire: those poor men never had the slightest chance.

Last year I did some wonderful walking the the Aude departement, in Cathar territory: it was incredibly hot, even in September, but the landscapes were beautiful, even in their dryness; they smelt different, the plants and bushes and trees were different. And assuming I remain fit and healthy enough, I have plans to go walking in the Eifel region of Germany, and also in Switzerland.

My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.

My travels: V for Volubilis

June 6, 2017

When I was a student and a hippy, back in the dim and distant past, a friend and I took a trip one summer to Morocco, where we did the usual hippy things, camping out in the open, living and eating as cheaply as possible, travelling around on rickety Moroccan buses along rather scary-looking winding roads overlooking precipices. We didn’t get that far on our travels, a few days on beaches before setting off for Fez, and eventually we fetched up in Meknes, which had stunningly impressive mediaeval city walls, the like of which I’ve never seen since until my recent visit to Carcassonne; from here we went to a small town called Moulay Idris, and thence to a ruined Roman town in the desert, called Volubilis

I think I did a number of daft things when I was younger, and this was probably one of the daftest. OK, we knew it would be hot – we’d been in the country for a while already, and it was so hot that it was impossible to do much at all in the afternoons – but this was the desert and we’d never been in a desert before, the middle of nowhere, with very little shade or shelter, and after we’d got back to civilisation at the end of the day someone casually remarked that it had been fifty degrees that day… We weren’t really prepared at all and I do not know how we escaped sunstroke, dehydration or grievous sunburn.

Volubilis was an entire town, a town from Roman times, in ruins in the middle of the desert, and largely untouched since those days. Yes, it was sort of on the tourist trail, and I think we may have paid to get ‘in’. I probably still have the ticket somewhere… It was astonishing. Everything was the same sandy colour – the sand, the scant vegetation, the stonework. There was a lot of it – probably on a par with the Roman site at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, if not larger. And it was hot. I lost count of the number of litres of water I drank that day, and sweated out. But it was a magical day: I got a very brief feel of what a desert actually was, and the ferocity of the conditions, and I have wondered if that experience was one of the things that sparked my lifelong fascination with deserts, which you may have noticed via quite a few of my blog posts… The Roman ruins were fascinating, because they hadn’t been tidied up and prettified the way many ruins are in more affluent countries.

Morocco was a serious culture-shock to this sheltered Western student. I saw people suffering from leprosy in the streets, and many with crippled and deformed limbs; when I mentioned this to someone who’d been in the country rather longer than me, he replied, ‘Well, in Europe if you break a limb you go to hospital and get it fixed. Here, if you’re poor and can’t afford it, you don’t…’ We came across many locals who did their best to part Westerners from their money in a range of devious ways; we also met many friendly and interesting people. The food was fascinating, the hygiene…different. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the medinas in the towns we visited, fascinated by how different everything was, what was offered for sale, how transactions were carried out, bartering… As we travelled around, I couldn’t get over the huge cacti and other desert plants which grew everywhere, and no doubt these triggered my enjoyment of growing them myself back home, though on a far more modest scale.

I suppose what has stayed with me most from that long-ago trip was the nature of the encounter with somewhere that was, in so many ways, so utterly different from what I had known up till then, and the challenge it represented to how I saw the world…

My travels: Q for Queribus

June 5, 2017

Some readers may have noticed my recent interest in the Cathars; in autumn last year (2016) I took myself on a trip to the Aude department in the south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, to visit some of the sites associated with this heretical church that was finally wiped out in the thirteenth century. The local tourist offices have been trying hard, in this rather poor area of the country, both to cash in on the history they have, and to dispel a lot of the myths that have grown up over the years about the Cathars. I found the tourist office personnel very helpful, and able to provide all sorts of extra information and tips as to what to look out for.

Cathars seem to have gathered in small, remote hill-top towns in the area, such as Rennes-le-Chateau, and when driven towards extinction to have fled to castles held by supporters of their faith. But the castles on the trail are not those where the Cathars made their last stands, but later replacements, from the era when the border between France and Spain was in dispute.

The castles themselves are mind-boggling in their inaccessibility, perched high up on rocky outcrops in a way that none of the castles – and I’ve visited a lot of them – in the UK are situated. And yes, I know that we don’t have any Pyrenees here. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could possibly manage to build a castle in such a place: where did they get the labour (enforced?) from? The stones? And how did they get them all up there? Then, when the castle was there, how on earth did anyone manage to besiege it? Because they were besieged, and captured… Queribus could be defended by a couple of dozen soldiers, and when you climb up to it, you can see how. And you are so high up, you can see to the Mediterranean.

They I went to Peyrepetuse. You drive up and up for ages along narrow winding mountain roads and eventually reach a dusty car park: the road goes no further. You can look across the valley and see Queribus in the distance. Then you look up, from the car park, to the mountains towering up another two or three hundred feet, and it’s as if someone has dropped a stone replica of the Titanic on top of the mountain – that’s the castle, coming to a point like the prow of a cruise liner, hundreds of feet above you… And then you try to get there. Absolutely stunning. There are actually three different castles there, though you can’t really separate them, in their ruined state. Making your way around is fairly random, and precipitous, and it’s bloody windy up there, too.

There are ruined abbeys, mediaeval walled towns, and there is also Carcassonne, which I spent three days exploring. An entire, walled mediaeval town, with a citadel, seriously but carefully restored, and you can walk all the way around it, either on the ramparts, half of which are Roman and half mediaeval, or in the moat. It is huge, and awe-inspiring. All-in-all, I think this has to be one of the most stunning areas of the country I’ve visited.

My travels: P for Paris

June 5, 2017

Paris is Paris and everyone who has been there has their own particular memories of it; it’s pretty easy to get to and to explore. It’s also pretty easy to be fleeced, to stay on the well-defined tourist trail and perhaps to miss some of its hidden magic. You also get to see, know and understand more if you speak the language, I firmly believe.

For me, the best thing is that Paris is eminently walkable. The metro is wonderful, efficient, cheap and useful, but you don’t need it unless you’re completely knackered after a long day’s exploration on foot. You can walk everywhere; the city is amazingly compact. And because the metro stations are so close together, and the entrance to each one has a huge and helpful map, you don’t even need to carry your own map…work out where you’re heading for, and check at each metro station where you actually are and when to change direction. On the other hand, don’t miss the wonderful elevated sections of the metro, where underground becomes overground, particularly the marvellous bit near the Eiffel Tower where it crosses the Seine on a double-decker bridge – the view is amazing.

I was lucky that in my twenties, a friend of mine lived and worked there, and so I was able to make a number of visits and have somewhere to stay; when I worked in Normandy as a language assistant I was also able to spend some weekends in Paris exploring. Basically I would set off walking; I’d stop anywhere that looked interesting; every now and then I’d look at one of those huge maps and work out where to head next. I never got ‘lost’; wherever I was, was interesting. I roved around Montmartre which offers wonderful views across the city, and the Marais, explored the strange areas around the elevated metro, headed south of the river, roamed the Left Bank, dropped into all the tourist sites as and when I fancied. And when I got hungry, there would be a bakery or small supermarket to get a snack, or the wonderful Tunisian sandwiches available in the Latin quarter…

There are plenty of things I missed: I’ve still not been round the Louvre (!) and it was only ten years or so ago that I finally came to know the stunning brilliance of the Sainte Chapelle… but I’ve explored the Canal St Martin, the Buttes Chaumont, the old Jewish quarter of the Marais and been to the Museum of Counterfeits… on my to-do list are the catacombs, the sewers, perhaps the Louvre, and certainly some of the other museums again.

Another thing I recall about Paris in my younger days was the enormous number of cinemas, all of which offered useful discounts to students; in many of them there would be several different screens, some of them with only a couple of dozen seats, showing a wide variety of films, especially arthouse and foreign language ones. With not much money it was possible to spend whole days – and I did – watching all sorts of amazing films that never made it to cinemas in Britain… Although it’s probably ten years since I was last there, it’s still the overseas city that I know best, and probably love the most.

Richard Byrd: Alone

May 23, 2017

I’m more than a little surprised by how many interesting books I come across when reading French newspapers and magazines; on a recent trip I went with a list of four books I wanted and came back with them all plus another must-have… and this was one of them, although originally written in English and available at a high price; the new French edition was nicely produced and sensibly priced.

It’s an astonishing piece of exploration and travel writing from the 1930s: Richard Byrd (a US admiral) was an explorer who (among other things) set up a base on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, from which a small station a couple of hundred miles further inland was also set up, in order to make meteorological observations during the polar night; because it was a dangerous task, Byrd, as expedition leader, decided to undertake the task himself, spending several months alone in the polar darkness.

He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking, and begins with acute and almost disinterested self-observation. He knows he could fall ill, injure himself, get lost whilst outside, suffer from the fumes of his stove, and is several days from possible help or rescue. But it’s the psychological effects of solitude he is initially interested to observe in himself and record; he’s a very intelligent and literate man and so does this well and interestingly.

The horror then starts, and it is truly shocking. He nearly dies from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a malfunctioning generator which drives the wireless transmitter he uses to keep in contact with his base, and as a result of this, realises that certain symptoms he had previously been experiencing show that his heating stove – on which his very life obviously depends – has also very slowly and insidiously been poisoning him. And the depths of polar winter, night, storms and cold – we are talking up to minus 70 Fahrenheit here – are approaching. If he cannot function to keep himself warm, he will die. And if he overuses his stove, it will also kill him…

Recovery from severe carbon monoxide poisoning is truly horrific, from his description: it will take months for his liver and spleen to repair his blood. He can hardly eat, vomiting most things, has appalling headaches, his eyesight is affected and he becomes physically very weak. Nevertheless he attempts to continue his weather recording, rations his use of the stove to a few hours a day because it is not possible to repair or modify it, endures dreadful cold, and will not call in help because it would mean others risking their lives.

I’ve read a number of accounts of men coping with extreme conditions, and this sits alongside voyages like Shackleton’s, or, at the other extreme, journeys through places like the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia; the effects of the poisoning were truly scary and Byrd admits freely that there were times he almost succumbed to the temptation to give up: another of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is the inability to sleep; he had strong sleeping tablets with him, which he did not give in to the desire to take… I can see why it took four years and considerable persuasion to get him to commit his account of those months to paper. It’s an astonishing read, an account from a true explorer who was unafraid to take risks and almost paid with his life.

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.

%d bloggers like this: