Posts Tagged ‘travel in the 1930s’

Peter Fleming: News From Tartary

March 2, 2018

510EcZdDwsL._AC_US218_It was good to come back to this classic travel account from the 1930s, a journey through the unknown from Peking (as it was then called) to India, through wild and lawless territories, during various Chinese civil wars, without real authority and never knowing whether one might be turned back at any point… whilst making one’s way through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

Fleming was a correspondent for The Times, and had made several other interesting and arduous journeys previously; he has that gung-ho British upper-class game-for-anything approach, without being a twit, and on this journey he travelled with the Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart, for the sole reason that they both wanted to make the journey, and thought it might be easier for them to succeed together; they survived the seven months that it took, and seem to have made a decent team, at least from Fleming’s account. It is clear how his admiration of her stamina and capacity for organisation and endurance – from an amateur like himself to the professional Ella, as he himself puts it – increasingly impressed him. I shall, sometime soon, re-visit her account of the same journey in Oasis Interdites.

It’s clear that the two of them were basically 1930s hippies with a ‘well, let’s go and see what happens’ approach. I am still astonished by the rudimentary nature of the gear that travellers took with them in the past; theirs included marmalade, cocoa, six bottles of brandy and… two typewriters! Fleming closely observes and record the details of their journey, and maintains a philosophical attitude to the possibility of failure. He is urbane, civilised, curious, interested; he takes the time and several chapters to clarify the various Soviet (and British, and Indian and Chinese) machinations going on in Xinjiang province. And he remains calm when faced with interminable waits and delays where they are at the mercies of various officialdoms and dare not insist too much given the inevitable irregularities of their situation… A dry sense of humour keeps him optimistic, and sane. His ode to tsamba, the staple diet of the region, is a masterpiece.

The regions through which they travel are incredibly remote; many people have never seen a European before. Just when you think they cannot head into somewhere more remote, they do. It is a seriously long, dangerous and gruelling journey, of the kind it is no longer possible to make in our times, and it isn’t just the phlegm of a certain kind of Brit, or the organisational capabilities of a more seasoned adventurer, that get them through the two thousand plus miles. It is the urge to do something not done before, to see if it might be possible. On Fleming’s part there is a certain amount of curiosity about the territory and its peoples, and a recognition that this world, so very different from the one he is heading back to, has its attractions despite its arduousness. The last stages of their journey, down into British India – the Raj – are positively surreal, both for the travellers and the reader.

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.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts

July 31, 2015

9780719566950I’ve been aware of his trilogy for a number of years and have finally got round to reading it: he walked from England to Constantinople in the 1930s and tells of his journey and encountered along the way…and yet the account itself was not written until more than forty years after the journey he describes.

He kept a detailed journal as he went, but the early stages of his account felt rather vague in terms of detail (later we learn that his possessions, including his first journal, were stolen from a hostel in Munich, which might go some way to explaining this) and his descriptions of places along the Meuse and the Rhine somewhat romanticised; but then we know that memory is kind to us, and tends to erase less pleasant events.

He writes very well, though, fluently and in the upbeat way that one would expect of someone not yet nineteen years old – optimistic, and the flow of his prose carries one along impressionistically, though at times feeling just a little overdone.

Walking, he meets all sorts of people, normally friendly, helpful, sociable and often offering rest and repose in their homes (it reminds me of my hitch-hiking experiences as a student); in this first volume he reaches Hungary. We learn of his background: clearly from a very comfortable social background, he nevertheless had a rebellious and unsuccessful school career and made a spontaneous decision to throw everything to the winds and set out on his travels. It’s a very interesting, ominous time in Europe: he crosses Germany at the end of 1933, so towards the end of Hitler’s first year in power…

At times I yearned for a bit more reflection on what he was seeing and experiencing and the people he was encountering, feeling him rather superficial – then realised I was being most unreasonable; I’m sixty and I would not have offered such analysis in my teens! A range of adventures is recounted, particularly from his stays in Vienna and Prague. He is clearly a well-educated person; he tries to describe the wonderful buildings and architecture he sees, but the prose becomes purple, overblown in places; it reminded me of Robert Byron’s descriptions at times, but Byron, though lyrical, seemed to have his feet much more firmly on the ground than Leigh Fermor

In the end I enjoyed this wander through times and places that have vanished forever; I shall move on to the second and third volumes in due course.

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