Posts Tagged ‘exploration’

Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


F Spencer Chapman: Watkins’ Last Expedition

December 14, 2016

41-yccg7xsl-_ac_us160_I’ve blogged elsewhere about the cerise Penguin series from the 1930s which was labelled Travel & Adventure, and this is another one of them, about exploration in Greenland in the early 1930s. It does read like something from the Boys’ Own Paper, with the semi-casual approach of the four men to a lot of what they do, but also with their powers of endurance and stiff upper-lip. They put up with risks – and experience tragedy when the expedition leader is lost in a kayaking accident – and appalling conditions that no-one would countenance today, and they do seem, by and large, to enjoy their adventures.

They travel in small boats, with dog teams, across snow and ice, among icebergs, and live with the local inhabitants – labelled with the now politically incorrect term ‘Eskimos’ – learn to speak the language, and eat the local diet, which to me sounds utterly disgusting: seal meat, large amounts of blubber, seabirds of various kinds, dog biscuits when reduced to it – without batting an eyelid. I admired their intrepidity and endurance.

Not a wildly exciting set of adventures but a decent read, and accompanied by a couple of decent maps, from the days when travel books knew what they were about.

Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior

November 23, 2015

41dl+3ku-+L._AA160_If you’re a regular reader, you will know of my fascination with maps and atlases. I aksed for an atlas for Christmas when I was seven, and haven’t looked back; as soon as I could afford one, I had a copy of the massive Times Atlas. But I have been going back in time with Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major.

Holland was the centre of the cartographical world in the seventeenth century, when exploration of the world was is full swing, and a number of very detailed and extremely beautiful atlases were produced there. Taschen reproduced a selection in this huge tome which I had to buy…

Maps from that time are quite different from those we know today. They are very colourful, decorated with engravings of all kinds: native costumes, coats of arms of local rulers, impressive buildings in local towns, flora and fauna adorn the edges of most of the maps. Great attention is paid to delineation of borders: whose land is it? Mountains, rivers – and obviously bridges – are marked, as are placenames; totally absent is what we probably find most important and useful nowadays, the transport infrastructure, because there wasn’t one. Not even roads are marked; I suppose the assumption was that there would be roads between places and if you were actually in a place, then you’d find the necessary road.

The level of detail varies considerably according to where the map depicts; Europe and the Mediterranean does pretty well, but the rest of the world is rather variable, and there are no maps that even hint at Australia or Antarctica. The still-to-be explored lands are probably the most interesting, for a number of reasons. For Africa and the Americas, there is plenty of coastal detail, because that’s how the discoveries and maps were made; the hinterlands are blank – Brazil is almost completely empty. In the Americas there are vague annotations in places along the lines of ‘gold is to be found in these mountains’ and the like. Interesting, for Africa and the Americas, is the fact that all places have indigenous names: we are in the pre-colonisation days, before Europeans took overand placed our settlements with familar names, that still endure in many parts of the world. Pictures of the local fauna also abound, as a way of filling up some of the blank space on the maps, so that buyers felt they were getting something for their money…

I always get a sense of how enormous the world must have seemed to travellers and explorers in those days, and the dangers that they ran in their journeys in days before longitude could be accurately determined, meaning that they often didn’t know where they were – literally. There is something wonderful about our species’ urge to know and to discover, even though it often gets us into a mess…

Christopher Hibbert: The Grand Tour

June 8, 2015

9780297178422I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the Grand Tour, on which the sons (only) of the leisured/idle rich were sent in centuries past to roam through Europe, and Christopher Hibbert‘s book was a good opportunity to delve into some of the details. I am always particularly keen to read about the actual travelling in previous centuries (see my post on travel in the middle ages here) when it was rather more complicated and arduous than in our day. Crossing the seas, and also crossing mountains, and the nature of overnight accommodation en route were all very different.

By and large the sons of aristocrats ate and drank, posed and whored around a lot, as well as complaining at great length about the inhospitality of Johnny Foreigner, his dreadful food and drink and boring landscapes and buildings; at least, this is the impression that comes across from Hibbert’s account. The writer Tobias Smollett seems to have been one of the worst in this regard. It’s clear that travellers didn’t usually set out to learn from their travels, and improve themselves, even though that might have been the intention of the fathers who laid out the necessary money…

I found myself thinking that, sadly, not a lot has changed, really: there are a lot of people now, with more money than sense, who seem to feel it’s necessary to travel the world and tick off places on a bucket list, and post comments on social media. And the English do not seem to have become any less xenophobic than they were centuries ago; many still expect to be able to consume recognisably English food and drink wherever they are in the world, a possibility obviously made much easier nowadays by multinational food and drink companies. I do wonder why some people go abroad at all…

To be fair, Hibbert does write about some travellers who liked what they saw and put up with the hardships of travel way back then in order to see what was different, and learn the languages, who came back home, and with what they had seen, influenced the art and architecture of this country in many different ways. If you have followed some of my thoughts on exploration, travel and tourism on this blog, you will be aware of my ambivalence about a lot of the travel that happens nowadays; surely one goes somewhere different in order to meet and talk with other people, participate in and enjoy the differences, to compare other lifestyles and manners with our own, to learn from the experiences. Certainly, that is what I have enjoyed about my travels.

The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck

March 3, 2015

51MpS2dTK5L._AA160_In 1253, Friar William and a companion set off on a journey into the unknown, which lasted two years. With an introductory letter from the king of France, they set off for the court of the son of Genghiz Khan, with the intention of preaching to him and, if possible, converting him to Christianity. That task itself was not quite as insane as the journey, as Nestorian Christianity was quite well established in those regions.

I’ve sometimes alluded to the differences between exploration, travel and tourism in my posts on travel writing, and this book helped clarify those differences for me.

Nowadays, we have a mental map of the world in our heads, with varying levels of detail according to our geographical education; we know of routes from place to place, the various nations and peoples of the globe, where particularly dangerous areas are; there are no blank spaces on our maps. Back in the mid-thirteenth century, some routes were known, some places and some peoples too; there were no maps as we know them, so distances were unknown; there were no compasses, so directions themselves were unclear. News as we know it did not exist, so there was no way of knowing if one were heading into the equivalent of twenty-first century Syria, or Libya, say… so Friar William had to trust to God and his fellow humans, and allow himself to be led by people he hoped were honest and well-meaning. And he went.

He observes details, and records them carefully, for his report to the French king: places and peoples, routes and distances, customs, what people eat and drink and how they marry and bury their dead. He relies on vague previous knowledge and legend at times; he makes some judgements and offers some opinions which show his Christian bias or prejudices, but overall he is pretty impartial and even scientific in his approach to reporting.

He got there and back, although he left behind his companion who was too ill to travel back; he failed in his intended mission although he seems to have received a courteous enough reception from the lord of the world. We know almost nothing about William himself except a small detail that reveals thar he must have been quite a portly man.

I find myself in awe of such a traveller, lost in the mists of time, his achievements and how his account has survived over 750 years. It’s partly thanks to the Hakluyt Society, who are dedicated to publishing accounts of travel and exploration which might otherwise disappear from our knowledge; their books are beautifully produced and edited, usually with helpful maps, and copious introductions and footnotes.

Maps and Atlases

October 8, 2014

9780007551408Readers of this blog who are interested in my posts about travel writing won’t be surprised to learn how much I love atlases and maps: visually attractive, often beautiful, they allow me to explore from the comfort of the sofa, and follow the travels of a host of writers. You will understand why I so often complain about the poor quality of maps attached to travel books nowadays – penny-pinching by publishers, or decisions by editors who have no real feel for what they are preparing for publication, and the needs of those who will actually buy and read the book. I can gaze for hours at the curious shapes of continents and countries, the locations of settlements and the countryside that surrounds them; I can appreciate the vastness of the world, in these days when it’s possible to reach remote places very quickly.

I especially like maps from the past: they are like a time capsule or time machine into a world that doesn’t exist any more. John Speed’s seventeenth century maps of Great Britain, for example, show older names for places, how difficult it was to travel from place to place in those days, places that were important then and are now faded into insignificance, and one notices the absence of some places which have grown up in the intervening years and did not exist, or merit a place on a map way back then. Johann Blaeu‘s stunning Atlas Major from the 1660s, now available again, albeit in an abridged version thanks to those wonderful publishers Taschen, allows one to look at the approximations of places when Westerners hadn’t fully explored and mapped everywhere: there are real blank areas on maps, although often filled up with drawings of (sometimes mythical) flora and fauna – nobody likes a blank space – there are places where only the coastline is known or partially known; there are places just not on the maps… And don’t get me started on wonders like the Mappa Mundi, of which I have a very faded reproduction, and its allegorical representation of the world.

For today’s world, I’ve yet to find anything to better the Times Atlas – I’m on my second copy, since the first was rendered rather less useful by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries and the renaming of so many places. The scale and level of detail is marvellous, only the size is a limitation: it doesn’t sit easily or comfortably on my lap while I’m reading. When there’s not enough detail in it, I tend to buy a one-off specialist map, so I have huge maps of the Sahara, the Silk Route countries and so on. I once saw, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of the Soviet-era Atlas Mira (Atlas of the World), and it was huge: it made the Times Atlas look small. I didn’t buy it, but often wish I had. I do have a smaller Atlas of the USSR, which is very useful when reading about travels in Russia, and especially Siberia. I also have a fascinating road atlas of the Soviet Union from the 1980s. This is fascinating partly because of the large areas that don’t figure in it at all – why would they, when there are no road there? – and also because of the roads which travel 400, 500, 600, even 700 km into the depths of the continent and then just stop. There are no side turnings to right or left. So when you’ve got there, the only way out is to do all that journey over again. It boggles my mind.

I have Google Earth on my computer. Occasionally it’s really useful. I can pinpoint the clearing in the forest deep in Belarus where my father’s home village (hamlet, really: only four houses) used to be. But it remains a curiosity, whereas I would be lost (literally) without my collection of maps and atlases.

Michael Asher: Thesiger

July 29, 2014

41CXHPZB44L._AA160_Michael Asher seems to be exactly the right person to write what is probably the definitive biography of Wilfred Thesiger: he’s a seasoned explorer himself, and familiar with many of the places Thesiger explored.

Thesiger comes across as a very conservative, dyed-in-the-wool aristocratic type, anti-democracy, anti-progress, in favour of people knowing their place – in short, a man from the past. He had a sufficient private income to fund whatever he did, and used to say that he had never worked a day in his life.

He deplored the ease of modern travel. He sought to live with the local people, as one of the local people, in his travels in Arabia and Iraq particularly, although Asher makes it clear that this was, at the same time, on Thesiger’s terms, and within his power; although he rejected previous explorers’ aloofness, superiority and difference from local tribes and peoples, he couldn’t actually escape it himself: how much can an outsider blend in and become part of a tribe? Through interviews with some of those Thesiger travelled with, Asher shows both how much they accepted him, and at the same time how he was always an outsider.

It’s as much a book about Asher as it is about Thesiger, in the end: Asher’s admiration of his predecessor shines throughout, though it is not romanticised, indeed it is often sharply critical; certainly Asher is clear about the many contradictions and inconsistencies in Thesiger’s life, and approach to people and exploration; he sees how Thesiger’s world-view was shaped and developed by his early experiences; he sees the flaws and self-delusion for what it was.. In the end, it boils down to this: what Thesiger liked was the tribes and peoples before they were ‘contaminated’ by contact with Western civilisation and technology, unspoiled, as it were, and he wanted them to remain like that, it seems almost in a zoo-like state, never mind that those tribes and people actually had the right to a choice about their futures and wanted progress and technology and Western medicine, for instance. To this reader, it seems that at times that Thesiger glimpsed the even bigger question about the nature of progress and what it does to us and our world, as a whole species, and unwittingly, but he was never able to ask the right questions at that level.

Asher was clearly fascinated by Thesiger the man, and the places he explored and peoples he lived with, at the same time as cutting him down to size and demythologising his approach; he recognises the greatness of his achievements as a traveller, and poignantly portrays his decline into old age.

Ultimately we are all creatures of our times, and Thesiger was from a bygone age even as he began his travels; Asher’s travels are different, and equally fascinating, and his perspectives on the people and places he has explored are more relevant (if that’s the right word) because more securely anchored in the issues of our times.

 **I have written about some of Michael Asher’s travel books elsewhere on this blog; you will find them if you search the archive.

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.

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