Posts Tagged ‘Wilfred Thesiger’

Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

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.

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.

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.

Alan Moorehead: Cooper’s Creek

April 21, 2014

Another fascinating second-hand acquisition, this book was written over half a century ago, to mark the centenary of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition which set out to cross Australia from south to north in the 1860s. Although they succeeded in making it to the Gulf of Carpentaria, they died on the return journey.

As I read, I was struck by the similarity between their story, and that of Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole. Both achieved their goal, both died on the way home. Scott and his colleagues died a few miles from safety, trapped by the weather. Burke and Wills, in desperate straits, arrived very belatedly at a support camp which their colleagues had left a mere nine hours before, after waiting for months and finally giving up hope that they were alive.

I’ve read some accounts, but not many, of the exploration of Australia, and what has stuck in my mind is the sense of it as a totally alien continent to the first travellers. It was completely unknown to any other nation before European sailors finally encountered it; its only inhabitants were the natives, who had been alone there for thousands of years. Nobody knew what might lie in the interior of the vast continent: there was even speculation that there might be a huge inland sea in the centre. The harshness of the terrain and the climate (Burke and Wills record temperatures  between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius!) reminded me of the accounts of travellers such as Thesiger and Bertram in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, but they had guides who knew the terrain.

Moorehead’s account is clear and well-written, given the relative scantiness of the information available to him; there was a bit too much detail given to the investigations and commission of enquiry after the loss of the expedition, adn I would have liked even more detail to the maps that accompanied the text.

Michael Asher: A Desert Dies

September 5, 2013

This is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. I’m old enough to remember the news stories about famine in the Sudan from the 1980s, and Asher tells the inside story with real people: this got through to me in a completely different way from the awful TV pictures.

Asher spent years living in and learning about the Sudan, its desert tribes and their way of life and customs, and he participates fully in their travels, describing in detail, and with sensitivity and sympathy, but, more importantly, without romanticising the desert people; though he can understand and take part, he knows he can never be one of them.

But he does also explain very clearly how the desert nomad way of life inevitably came to an end. Technology and change impinges on everywhere in the end, and the climate is also merciless: I finally understand what it means when ‘the rains fail’, and how people can be reduced to destitution and worse. A complex ecosystem that enabled people to live in some of the harshest conditions on the planet disintegrates in a few years and can never be put back together: this is the tragedy that Asher participates in and enables the reader to feel, as peoples’ pride, dignity, and eventually lives are lost.

As I’ve read his three books about the desert (not in chronological order) Asher has gone up in my estimation – for what that’s worth – and I really do think that he is on a par with Thesiger and other, earlier desert explorers.

Michael Asher: Impossible Journey

June 28, 2013

After reading his first book (see recent post) I hunted down this his third – straight away. It’s the story of his journey across the Sahara from West to East, Mauritania to Egypt, with his wife, by camel, and, to my mind, confirmed him on a par with Thesiger and other desert explorers. This was clearly a very arduous and dangerous journey, undertaken for the love of travel, and getting to know the peoples whose lands he passed through. I was also pleased that there was a decent, useful map to track his travels – so often this is skimped or or omitted from travel books.

They travelled with a number of different guides – clearly only a madman would travel without a local guide, though they did for a short distance – and it was interesting to see how differently they behaved. The authorities in each of the countries through which they passed provided their own challenges, and Asher recounts the changing face of desert travel and desert life, with the advent of the car and the truck, and the arrival of Westerners out for a quick dash in a vehicle across some desert, of which they necessarily must observe very little.

Personally, I found the relationship between Asher and his wife tended to get in the way of the travel and description at times, but that’s probably rather harsh on my part, as they did travel together.

What’s so compelling about deserts? Vast open spaces, inhospitable spaces, spaces where the individual is forced to confront every aspect of her/himself, places clearly of great beauty – though it’s interesting that the local inhabitants do not recognise this! – places with history. Shelley’s Ozymandias…

Michael Asher: In Search of the Forty Days’ Road

June 14, 2013

Two very different reasons got me reading this – firstly, it’s about travel through deserts, specifically in Southern Sudan, and secondly, it’s by someone from my home town, and who went to the same secondary school as I did for a while, though we were separated by a year or two (I never knew him).

Very quickly it became clear that Asher had fallen in love with the desert, and the ways of desert people: he lived and travelled with them, spoke their language and wanted to learn from them – in short, someone in the footsteps, at least, of Thesiger and the like, although I learned, from an interesting article in wikipedia, that Asher would not agree with this. At first, I felt he was romanticising the desert tribes and their way of life in the way that a (relatively) affluent westerner could, in that at any time he could leave, and return home to our way of life, whereas those who came from the desert and lived there could not.

However, there developed a deeper understanding, it seemed to me: he was drawn to explore (illegally at times) territories that were a war zone at the time (late 70s/ early 80s) looking for ancient travel routes across the desert, although ultimately thwarted in that search. He learned as much as he could about camels, in order to know how to buy the most suitable ones for his purposes. And he sought to share all aspects of the life of the desert.

He writes well, and carefully, with an eye to explaining what the uneducated western reader will need to know to understand what he has to say, as well as describing the beauty (as he perceives it, in contrast to those he travels with) of the desert. And he is drawn deeper, to reflect on the inevitable changes that technology and globalisation are having and will have, on these societies, which he refuses to see as ‘primitive’ in our terms, recognising that, although their life seems harsh and basic to us, they have (or had, until recently) all that they needed to live and survive. There are messages for us, here, about the nature of sufficiency, and contentment.

I’m really glad to have come across Michael Asher, and will be moving on to other of his travel writings shortly…

Travel and Tourism

May 12, 2013

This post is prompted by a recent find at Aardvark Books, which I’ve mentioned before. Alone Through the Forbidden Land, by Gustav Krist narrates the adventures of this Austrian traveller in Persia and other Silk Route countries in the 1930s, when much of the area was ‘closed’ to foreigners for various reasons, not least being that a considerable part of the area had only recently been annexed to the Soviet Union. Krist (who I’d never heard of before) had been an Austrian prisoner of the Russians during the First World War, which made his travels even riskier.

I really enjoyed the book. Krist covered territory and peoples which I never tire of reading about, and came across as a real traveller with curiosity about, understanding of, and sympathy with, the people among whom he was travelling, willing to share their lives, and to take risks to find out… an explorer, I suppose. For me, he fits in with the other interesting travellers of that time, such as Thesiger, Thomas, Maillart and Fleming.

I much prefer to read accounts from the days when travelling involved effort, privation and the unknown, for people who really wanted to get to know people and places. This is very different from travelling nowadays, which I think is more correctly called tourism: it is now so easy, and quick, to get to anywhere on the planet; one is protected by Western medicine and technology from most dangers and risks, and so there seems to be little real adventure involved in going to faraway places. Increasingly, too, I think Westerners are parasitic on other societies, and our needs as tourists warp and deform the lives and needs of the local inhabitants who are drawn in to service us. We have the money to buy the time and the luxury of travel to anywhere on the planet regardless of our effect on our world, others’ worlds and their environment, and what do we learn? Do we even think about such questions? Reading the book, I got the sense of a world that was gradually and inevitably changing as modernity caught up with it; this is a double-edged sword, in the sense that such things as modern medicine, and some modern technology have the ability to transform people’s lives, that people often lived under cruel and barbarous regimes (but then so did they in the ‘civilised’ West quite frequently) in states of great poverty and need, that such people often crave the benefits of the West, and yet here, we are so often dissatisfied with what we have, and yearn to get away from it all.

The book is well-written, illustrated with some of the author’s photographs, and has a decent map to enable the reader to follow his journey – this is always an added bonus, and often sadly lacking in more recent and cheaply produced books.

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