Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!

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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.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

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.

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.

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.

The First World War: cerise Penguins

October 3, 2010

I’ve begun collecting early Penguin paperbacks, not in a systematic fashion, but because I realised there was some interesting long-lost travel writing in the early volumes with the cerise covers, so I now look out for them at book fairs and in second-hand shops. Interestingly the category is sometimes listed as ‘Travel & Adventure’ and sometimes as ‘Adventure’.

I recently found three that were written about the First World War, which is another of my literary interests, partly because I teach FWW literature at school.

‘Within Four Walls: A Classic of Escape’ read almost like Boys’ Own Paper yarns; two officers prisoners in Germany virtually from the start of the war, making repeated attempts to escape and reach freedom in Holland, and often recaptured at the very last minute. They did eventually make it, separately.

‘Two Vagabonds in Serbia and Montenegro’ was rather rambling and incoherent travelling around as medics; it reminded me of Svejk’s adventures more than anything else.

The most interesting of the three was ‘The Dark Invader’, an account by a German agent who spent a lot of time trying to sabotage the Allied war effort and sink its shipping, mainly from his base in the United States. Eventually he was caught and seemed to feel very hard done by as he spent several years in prison. After the war he met up with a number of the Brits whom he plotted and planned against, and either outwitted or was outwitted by; there seemed to be no hard feelings, as if it had all been a gentlemen’s game played by the rules. It was an eye-opening view of the earlier days of espionage, though.

None of these would I particularly recommend, but they were interesting little sidelights on the territory.

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