Posts Tagged ‘Ella Maillart’

Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.

Ella Maillart: La Vie immédiate

January 5, 2017

51si-hpbtjl-_ac_us174_Many years ago when I was on holiday in France, I asked a bookseller in Dinan about travel writing, and he introduced me to the writing of Ella Maillart, a Swiss woman who travelled widely in the Middle East, China and India in the 1920s, 30s and subsequently. I never looked back: this was the last and hardest to find of her books, so my collection and enjoyment is complete.

It’s a book of her photos from many of her journeys, taken with her trusty Leica camera – she was one of the first people to have one – presented and introduced by her friend and traveller Nicholas Bouvier. There are some marvellous images that take one back into the first half of the last century, in distant parts of the world, atmospheric because of their age. They may lack the full-colour splendour of what the National Geographic magazine used to print, but they make up for it for me in their connection with one of the last few real travellers.

Maillart travelled in the Soviet Union in its early days, reaching places she wasn’t meant to go to; she travelled in central Asia; through China to India in the days of the civil war and Japanese invasion, in the company of Peter Fleming, a correspondent for The Times (his account of their trip, News From Tartary, is also well worth reading); in Afghanistan at the start of the Second World War and in India during that war. And her travels were hard work, gruelling, in the company of local people. She couldn’t escape from difficult situations by hopping on a plane or a train, she didn’t ease her poor Western limbs and sensibilities by taking time off in a luxury hotel when she got tired… she experienced the real life of the places through which she travelled, the difficulties and the hardships, and these willingly, as she gradually came to realise that she was not just on a physical journey, but on her own emotional and spiritual journey of self-discovery. It’s for these reasons that, to me, her observations and accounts feel far more real and interesting than most more recent travel-writing.

Initially Maillart wrote in French but soon turned to English so that most of her writings are accessible here, although also long out of print: she hasn’t been re-discovered yet. She used the proceeds from her writings – books and magazine articles – to finance her travels. She was extremely lucky to have been Swiss, in the sense that the two world wars did not directly impinge on her in the ways in which they would have done to almost any other European; she and her friends were appalled at what Europe had managed to do to itself in the Great War and were quite happy to leave it behind; equally, as the next nightmare approached, Maillart left for the other sideof the world.

I find her writing inspirational, in a way: she threw herself into her travels and became a part of them. There’s no European standing aloof or apart from people and places, and pontificating about them: she participates, shares, describes with a humility and an equality as well as an enjoyment of where she is and what she is doing, that is simple, healthy and life-enhancing, and I admire her more than any other traveller I have come across so far.

On religion

December 30, 2016

It’s not a very easy subject for fiction, really: too many toes to tread on, too many people to offend. But anything should be open to a writer, and there are some that have tackled the subject, in a number of original and interesting novels.

I remember finding Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge very liberating as a teenager, when I was wrestling with religion myself, prior to giving it up and trying to leave it behind for twenty years or more… That is another story, but the novel was about a young man’s quest to find himself, and something to really believe in and bring some meaning to his life, and that struck a chord with me at the time. I suppose it introduced me to the idea of a personal spiritual journey, something that I’ve now realised I’ve been engaged in all my life and will only reach the end of at the end. The hero eventually makes his way to India – a place that loomed large in the consciousness of many in the late sixties and early seventies – and explores Eastern religions and beliefs.

Later I came across Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha is a short novel, enigmatic, imagining the life and spiritual development of the Buddha. When I first came across it, I didn’t really understand it; more recently I’ve listened to it a couple of times in an excellent librivox recording and it’s made me think much more deeply. As a student, though, it was Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund that really moved me and had a powerful effect on me, through its exploration of the contrasting secular and spiritual journeys of its two protagonists and the ways in which they were so deeply interconnected.

Novelists who have encompassed Christianity in fiction are rather harder to recall. There was Nikos KazantzakisThe Last Temptation, which scandalised many when it was filmed, and the disturbing Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, which looks at the attitudes of inquisitors as they go about their work. I’ve come across – though can only vaguely recall – a couple of interesting science fiction stories which imagine God sending his Son Jesus to other worlds, to alien intelligences, and what might have happened to him on those planets: sacrilege to some, but legitimate speculation for others. I have yet to read Philip Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ; I don’t know why I have managed to avoid it for so many years.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s astonishing The Master and Margarita takes in the story of the trial, condemnation and execution of Christ, from the perspective of Pilate and his wife. It’s only one strand of the novel, but is skilfully woven in, and makes one think, as a good writer will.

A final mention, not of a novelist but of one of my all-time favourite travel writers, Ella Maillart, who, after years of travelling and exploring the East, was drawn to India and its religions on her own spiritual journey as she strove to make sense of a world which had descended into the Second World War; her account of some of her search can be found in her book Ti-Puss, which I really enjoyed: her years of motion and restlessness brought her to calm fixedness in India for a number of years, and seemingly allowed her to make some sense of her life in her later years.

Philosophy in literature

February 11, 2016

I wrote generally about philosophy in a recent post, and it occurred to me I should develop my thoughts and look at philosophy in the literature I’ve read.


I suppose I must first have met it when I read Sartre‘s novels all those years ago: The Age of Reason, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul seem to have been compusory teenage reading in the ninetee-seventies – all that existentialism, and attempting to live by it. It made a stunning BBC TV series in the seventies, too, one that I and many others would live to see again, but I’ve never really felt tempted to return to the novels.

Another philosophical novelist I encountered at roughly the same time was Hermann Hesse, and I have returned to some of his novels recently (Narziss and Goldmund, and Siddartha, via Librivox). In the former, his two heroes spend their lives seeking out paths to live by, one through religious and contemplative life and the other through travel, exploration of and involvement with the world; it’s still one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. Siddartha tells the story of the development of the Buddha; it’s still, for me, the clearest exposition of Buddhist teachings and way of life I’ve read, and far more accessible than that faith’s philosophical and sacred texts.

Again, as a teenager, I read Somerset Maugham‘s The Razor’s Edge, another story of the search for a way to live and a meaning to life, a bildungsroman of the kind that would appeal to a teenage male looking out at the potential of the whole world for the first time.

Interestingly, the philosophical novel took a back seat for many years as I got on with living my life, rather than thinking about it. In passing, I encountered Russian novelists such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, both noted for wandering off-piste to philosophise about the world and the meaning of life for while, whenever it suited them…


One of my favourite novels of all time, which I only came across a decade or so ago, is Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life. It explores and espouses quietism and flight from the world, perhaps a perfectly understandable response to the Great War. And also quite stunning in terms of its evocation of a sense of place.

If asked to choose my favourite travel writer of all time, I think it would be the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart, whose travels and explorations in the first half of the twentieth century led her to India and Hindu philosphy and yoga in her search for tranquillity and a meaning to existence towards the end of her wanderings; Ti-Puss is an account of some of her time and adventures in Southern India.

Most recent discovery of philosophy in a novel (only available in French, I’m afraid) is the story of the eleventh century Arab doctor and savant Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Gilbert Sinoué‘s novel Avicenne ou la Route d’Ispahan is a marvellous imagining of his life, trials and tribulations.

I’ve often written of, and spoken about, novels that have made me think; those I’ve mentioned above have taken that quality a level deeper, as it were.

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Broken Road

August 17, 2015

9781848547544The final volume of the trilogy is rather a mish-mash compared with the first two; it was incomplete at the time of Leigh Fermor‘s death, and peters out before he reaches Constantinople, which we never hear about. What there was seems to have been tidied up by his editors, who have appended a sizeable section of his diary extracts from his visits to the monasteries of Mount Athos… and these I found the most interesting part of the book.

The production of the book is clearly a tribute and a labour of love by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron; the map they include needed Leigh Fermor’s route and all the towns he visited marked on it, as in the previous volumes.

The descriptions of Bulgaria were interesting, although there was too much history; since I knew almost nothing about the country, I learnt a good deal. In the 1930s ‘yaourt’, as he calls it, was a foodstuff confined to that country…and I enjoyed its description as an utter novelty. One gets the sense of Romania and Greece casting their spell over him, and there are clues, in his portrayals of the local Jewish communities and relations between them and the locals, of how the exterminations ten years in the future would unfold. Writing as he did forty years after his travels, his comments on homosexuality among Bulgars and Romanians were enlightened, but in the unedited Athos diaries from the 1930s, it’s called an ‘abnormality…’

This is a more personal volume than the previous two: there is detail about his parents, family and childhood background, which helps enlighten some of his life and some aspects of his personality.

In the end, although I really enjoyed the three books, I felt the author too highly rated: he writes well, though his prose is rather overblown in places, and the raw material of the Athos diary at the end of this volume was actually far more convincing a travelogue; certainly to describe him as probably the greatest travel writer during his lifetime, as the wikipedia entry does, is to overstate the case: Robert Byron does Mount Athos better, and one could make a more convincing case for the greatness of, say, Wilfred Thesiger or Ella Maillart. However, I think I shall come back to these books in the future.

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

Tourism, Travel and Exploration

July 6, 2014

If you visit my blog regularly, you’ll have realised I’m very interested in writing about travel. I have been doing some thinking about what has changed about our exploration of our world over the years.

I suspect that nowadays most of us are tourists. Our journey has a set timeframe, a set destination, the travelling to and from is organised in advance, as is where we stay whilst away from home. We often take guidebooks and even phrasebooks. Even in distant, ‘exotic’ places we can be safe and comfortable. One of the things which concerns me about all this is the effects we can have on the lives and the economies of people in distant lands; thinking  ‘well, we are putting money into the local economy’ isn’t necessarily the end of it.

Travelling seems different. We may not set off for a specific amount of time, or have a set destination; we will probably organise travel ourselves ad hoc, and similarly accommodation. I think of my summers hitch-hiking in my student days. There are some unknowns and unpredicatables about this sort of journey, but we have maps, routes and nowadays all kinds of technology to help us. I find travelling harder to define, as I think about writers who come to mind who have set off for considerable lengths of time on arduous journeys well off the beaten track, and yet haven’t completely gone into the unknown… Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming in the 1930s travelling in Central Asia at times of great political unrest, Wilfred Thesiger crossing the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Michael Asher in the Sudan, Sylvain Tesson in Siberia recently. Such people never actually go off the edges of the map, as it were, into the places that used to be labelled ‘here be dragons’ but they do go where we are, even now, extremely unlikely ever to go, and they are definitely tested by their experiences.

And then there’s exploration… new and undiscovered territory, though even here, there’s the necessary caveat, undiscovered by Western/ white people. Such journeys involve creating the first maps and charts of places, sometimes collecting specimens of previously unknown flora and fauna. Serious risks and dangers are involved here, from people, places, nature and the weather; in the past, before navigational aids were invented, one could become lost, or not be able to know where one was. And still they went. Scott to the Antarctic, the circumnavigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Ibn Battutah on land much earlier, the nineteenth century explorers of Australia trying to find the huge inland sea that was believed to lie in the centre of that continent. To my mind, there’s nowhere left now for this kind of exploration; everywhere is ‘discovered’ if not completely known, and everywhere is accessible with today’s technology. The final frontier, in Captain Kirk’s words, is space. I’ll never read about that exploration.

So, I’ve drawn up a rather simplistic taxonomy of journeys. And I suspect many of us would prefer to be thought of as travelling rather than as mere tourists, with the pejorative connotations of that word. But why do we go ‘away’? Why do you go away? For me, I think it is the change and challenge of being somewhere different, of seeing and experiencing things done in a different way, even the basic business of speaking; it is seeing the wonders of different places and cultures and being taken out of my insularity, it is realising how marvellously diverse our world is.

Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

Dervla Murphy: Silverland

December 15, 2013

41cnQwDQlkL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_My mother and I both enjoy travel writing, and often swap books we’ve read. She has been urging me for a long time to read some Dervla Murphy, and, seduced by the prospect of reading some more about Siberia (of which I never tire), I finally gave in.

Murphy is another solo female traveller, in the vein of Ella Maillart, of whom I’ve written before. Murphy is now rather older, and also a more recent traveller, so there is rather less unexplored territory to visit, but she does make real efforts to leave the beaten track, sometimes to her cost. She is genuinely interested in the places she visits and the people she encounters, and inclues plenty of background information to help the reader orient her/himself. She’s also very political, which is rather unusual in travel writers, at least those I’ve read. Nothing escapes her sharp, questioning mind, and she will digress for several pages on the political and social implications of something she has come across. Only very occasionally is this tiresome; usually it further enlightens her travels and writing.

She travels on slow trains – not the tourists’ Transsiberian railway, but the later BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral, if you wanted to know), sections of which run parallel to, but further north than, the more well-known and older Transsib. She appreciates the beauty of much of Siberia, especially Lake Baikal, but she is also saddened by the waste and environmental degradation which has gone on for decades, under the Soviets to whom economic and industrial progress (?) was the most important thing, and even more so in the present, capitalist (?) times, where profit, and the fast buck are everything.

She can see the superficial attractiveness of the new, Western freedoms(?) to Russians whose lives were limited for so many years under state socialism, and she can see beyond this to the catastrophic effect this is having on the country and its peoples; it’s clearly a stage the country has to go through before its people may perhaps see that there are other things that are more important… the more one looks, the more one is conscious of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and how we are all manipulated by capitalist and Western hegemony.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that she writes political polemic: she doesn’t, but she’s aware of the complexity of everything; she loves the places and the people and describes them sympathetically, and enables us to have a window onto places we can probably never visit, and lives that are very different from ours. A real traveller, then, and no tourist.

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