Posts Tagged ‘cerise Penguin travel books’

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!).

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.

Gandar Dower: Amateur Adventure

June 20, 2016

51LtNqhagvL._AC_US160_Another of the cerise Penguins, source of some of the earliest travel writing of the twentieth century. It’s a fairly brief and rather pedestrian account, from the early 1930s, of what was apparently the first flight from London to Madras. It was not a direct flight: it involved many legs and stopovers and a rather convoluted route, with organising petrol, visas and permissions in advance being of paramount importance…

Our heroes – for there are two of them in the plane, an accomplished pilot and a rather inexperienced one, one who prefers flying over land and the other who prefers being over the sea – eventually do arrive in India without too many mishaps. The writer rhapsodises about flying over the deserts – quite a lot of desert – and that was good enough for me, and I quickly warmed to his laconic and dry sense of humour. Sadly, there was no map to accompany and track their journey. But, as an insight into the early days of long-distance flight and the difficulties involved, as well as the fragilities of the aircraft, it was illuminating.

Norbert Casteret: Ten Years Under The Earth

November 12, 2015

51hNP8b8IZL._AA160_When I was eighteen, I visited two wonderful places in the Pyrenees, in the Ariège region of France. The first was the Grotte de Niaux, a cave adorned with marvellous prehistoric cave paintings, which one had to visit with a guide, carrying acetylene lamps. And the second was a marvellous underground river, La Labouiche, along which one travelled in flat-bottomed punts through a world of bizarre rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. So when I came across this little volume, one of the original cerise Penguin travel books, I had to buy it…

Norbert Casteret seems utterly fearless, braving danger, underground caverns, rivers, potholes and tunnels almost without a thought, and with a neglect of health and safety that could only come from an explorer of nearly a century ago, who, it seems, was often accompanied by his brother, wife and mother on his expeditions.

Some parts of his description, which involved wriggling through narrow underground crevices, I could hardly bring myself to read, so claustrophobic did I feel. But he describes well the thrill of exploration and discovery; he explains how early man lived, the flora and fauna and rock formations in the underground caves. The chapter on bats is particularly interesting, and about halfway through, one realises he is writing at a time when scientists had not worked out how bats use their sense of direction, and how they manage to avoid obstacles… You get a very clear picture of a man in love with the landscape of the Pyrenees, a close observer of so many things, an intrepid explorer from his earliest years. There is a certain thrill to the book, and a lot of explanation. There are some ancient, blurry black and white photos – his explorations took place in the 1920s and the book was first published in England in the 1930s.

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