Posts Tagged ‘women travellers’

Amandine Roche – Nomade sur la voie d’Ella Maillart

August 27, 2020

81a+PrLYM5L._AC_UL320_     I’ve remarked before how little the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart is known over here, despite having written most of her books in English. She is much more popular in Europe, and this book is another ‘tribute’ to her: a French traveller attempts to follow in her footsteps seventy years later, in the early years of this century, and it’s quite instructive. I read it in the hope of understanding a little more of Maillart’s philosophy of life, some of which I had gleaned from Olivier Weber’s book.    

The book is very uneven: at times Roche’s travelling and encounters appear very superficial, and some stretches of her journey are sketched at breakneck speed: Maillart she isn’t, and this isn’t her fault. Her comparisons of the places Maillart visited and how they are now are very interesting, especially when we feel she is as engaged with people and surroundings as much as Maillart was. There are major changes: there is Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits it places on the possibilities for travel; there is the disintegration of the USSR, its fragmentation into numerous barely functioning statelets (Maillart travelled through the Soviet Union in its very early days); China is now a communist empire rather than a failed state in the middle of a civil war and experiencing a Japanese invasion; travel is so much more mechanised… and then there are the places which really do seem virtually unchanged since the 1930s, particularly in Tibet and Nepal. In poorer and more remote regions of the former USSR, Roche encounters a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days of communism among ordinary who have not been on the make.

What became clearer to me was what I picture as Ella Maillart’s flight from Europe in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, a continent where civilisation and its values had either vanished or been found severely wanting. It’s almost as if she could see the future unfolding as she gravitated towards India as the Second World War approached, stopped travelling and began an interior journey instead. I feel that one of the values of Roche’s travels and writings is how, via the inevitable comparisons, Maillart’s quest becomes clearer. At times, I also felt Roche had a tendency to romanticise rather. Travel in the 2ist century is certainly very different, and much harder, in many ways.

It’s when she’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that Roche feels so much more immersed, more detailed and more observant; her reflections on how thing do or do not change over time show clearly that we are not necessarily progressing as a species. She happened to be in Kabul on 9-11: certainly chaos did seem to follow her about at times!

One thing was really unsatisfactory: clearly five years in India shaped the second half of Maillart’s life, and Roche did not really provide too many clues about those experiences. Nor – and this was a great surprise, especially since she mentions her intention of doing it – does she visit the places in Southern India where Maillart spent those five years of the Second World War.

I’m glad I read this book; I feel a little more informed, and the personal narrative of how things have changed over time is worthwhile. But the maps are poor…

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.

Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown

November 16, 2015

51aesYOaEwL._AA160_This is a reprint of a travel journal published well over a century ago, part of Virago press efforts to bring back into print the long-lost writings of women writers. It’s not a wonderful effort: the reproduction of the text is like a rather poor photocopy, and the replacement map is very poor, showing merely a linear route and some of the placenames. But the hundreds of original monochrome photographs have all been reproduced, and many of them are wonderful; I suspect many of them are of places that no longer exist.

As a travel journal it’s a bit bald and mechanical: certainly it’s less interesting than Bell’s diaries. But she travels though wonderful territory, from Jerusalem to Antioch, via Amman, Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and lots of other marvellous places; ancient places abound, sites from the earliest years of Christianity as it spread through the Middle East, before being swept away with the spread of Islam from the seventh century onwards.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the territory covered by William Dalrymple in From The Holy Mountain, which I read earlier this year, and the mental comparison is interesting. He’s far more interested in the people he encounters on the way and questions them, and he provides a good deal of necessary contextual background, too; he’s also travelling in far more perilous times, both for himself and for the remaining Christians in those lands. Bell is writing during the final, relatively impotent years of Ottoman power in the region, before the First World War, and the subsequent Anglo-French carving up of the area, leaving consequences which are still with us today…

Syria comes across as a sleepy, peaceful and welcoming country, full of crumbling Roman towns and Christian churches; there is tension evident between various confessional groups, but no sign of the horrors to come.

This book also underlined for me something which has gradually been becoming clearer to me as I travel and read: the difference between this small and overcrowded country where I live, where space is precious and any building no longer needed or in use is demolished, removed, replaced, and other, more spacious nations where such buildings are merely left, abandoned; they crumble, maybe stones are taken and re-used elsewhere or maybe not, they remain as reminders of the past.

The Journeys of Celia Fiennes

February 6, 2014

41wiY0Sy-PL._AA160_I’ve often noticed that all of a sudden, I’ll see the same book, that I’ve never seen before, in several secondhand shops within a short period of time, as if everyone with an old copy has decided to get rid of it at the same time. So it was with this nicely-made volume, which eventually tempted me to buy it.

Celia Fiennes travelled very extensively throughout England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. She hoovered up the miles, keeping a carefully tally of how far she’d gone each year, and often complains about how the miles are much longer up North than in the south of the country. She mainly travelled on horseback, accompanied only by a small number of servants. She has good social connections throughout the land, and describes their houses in minute detail; the lower classes are almost completely absent from her accounts.

What was interesting, for a twenty-first century reader, were her impressions of various towns and cities compared with how we perceive them nowadays; this gives a measure of how much England has changed over three centuries. Nottingham is very high on her list of beautiful towns, whereas she finds York grotty and run-down… Some parts of the country are totally different – the Isle of Ely, for example, which really is an island and often difficult to access; I was reminded that we are just about at the era when Dutch engineers came over to assist with draining the Fens. Buildings mentioned are almost exclusively cathedrals, churches and country houses; occasionally a municipal building gets a mention, in a larger town. Roads are often poor, frequently only passable with difficulty.

I’ve been reminded that I have a copy of Defoe‘s journey around Britain, which he made a few decades later, and also Cobbett‘s Rural Rides, waiting to read, and probably compare with this small gem.

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