Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take

Deep South
by Paul Theroux

I don’t usually review books that I don’t finish, but I find I have a lot to say about this book. I know there will be people who disagree with me because Paul Theroux is much lauded for his travel writing, and at a sentence level I would have to agree that he’s a great writer. But there was something about this book that made me deeply uncomfortable, and it was not the non-revelation that there is serious poverty in the southern United States, or that racial tensions continue to exist there.

Theroux has a high sense of self-importance and takes great pleasure in displaying how well read and well travelled he is. He repeatedly makes sweeping generalisations that are designed to demonstrate his open-mindedness or liberal politics but actually serve to make the opposite point. He keeps presenting the reader with terribly nice southern black men who turn out to have street smarts but little education, and then white men who are hideously racist and gun-crazy. He’s over-simplifying complex issues, and not in a particularly interesting way.

Continue reading “Did not finish because there’s only so much smug old guy I can take”

A man is no better for having made the worst journey in the world

worst journey in the worldThe Worst Journey in the World
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Wow. Just wow. Perhaps I’m biased by my pre-existing fascination with polar exploration, but this is an incredible book. Or rather, it reaches the very limits of credibility but does not overstep them, for I do not think that Cherry exaggerates at all. Humans beings have been through worse at the hands of other human beings, but not at the hands of nature.

This is a big book, but I tore through it in less than a week, foregoing most of my television and internet-pottering time because I just had to get back to this gripping story. For a day after finishing it I was reluctant to start another book or experience any other story. I wanted to sit with this tale of hardship and suffering in the name of science, of men who willingly endured that humankind might benefit. It is inspiring.

Continue reading “A man is no better for having made the worst journey in the world”

That strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe

Through England on a Side-Saddle
by Celia Fiennes

I picked this up in a rare glow of national pride, what with certain sporting stuff going on. It’s an odd little book. Published as part of Penguin’s “English Journeys” series, it’s an extract from the 1698 travelogue of a rich Englishwoman travelling on horseback up to Newcastle and down to Cornwall. Intrepid, I think the word is.

Through England on a Side-Saddle

The language takes a little getting used to. Not that the words are unfamiliar, but Penguin has left the original spelling and grammar in place, with only the occasional translation in square brackets. It’s jarring but once in the flow I found myself surprisingly able to cope with the same word being spelled three different ways within a paragraph!

This travelogue was written up later from a detailed journal that Fiennes kept on the road, and it suffers a little bit from listing the same few facts about each place: number of churches (I love that this was a reasonably reliable indicator of population!), distance in miles, quality of roads, major trade. But even these facts were sometimes fascinating: in 1698 Liverpool was so small it had only one church! Compare that with Newcastle-upon-Tyne (5 churches) and Bristol (19 churches and a cathedral) – even Wells, now England’s smallest city, had 2 churches and a cathedral! Also, roadsigns were a brand new idea:

“they have one good thing in most parts off this principality [Lancashire] that at all cross wayes there are Posts with Hands pointing to each road with the names of the great town or market towns that it leads to, which does make up for the length of the miles that strangers may not loose their road and have it to goe back againe”

(I so badly want to take a red pen to that now!)

More importantly, Fiennes has occasional flashes of wit and humour that make the drier sections worthwhile. Take, for instance, her comments on St Winfreds Well:

“its a cold water and cleare and runs off very quick so that it would be a pleasant refreshment in the sumer to washe ones self in it, but its shallow not up to the waste so its not easye to dive and washe in; but I thinke I could not have been persuaded to have gone in unless might have had curtains to have drawn about some part of it to have shelter’d from the streete, for the wett garments are no covering to the body; but there I saw abundance of the devout papists on their knees all around the Well; poor people are deluded into an ignorant blind zeale and to be pity’d by us that have the advantage of knowing better”

Fiennes is travelling alone, with local guides (and, I suspect, luggage carriers) in each region. She at no point refers to being a woman travelling without husband or other family, which perhaps is a product of her being rich and well-connected enough that she knows people all over the country (and often describes their houses and gardens lengthily, another bit I found tedious). She makes a point of learning about local trades and industries, going into surprising detail about methods of coal mining, for example. She does, however, show a certain snobbery and prejudice, particularly towards the Scots when she briefly crosses the border:

“those houses are all kinds of Castles and they live great, tho’ in so nasty a way…one has little stomach to eate or use any thing as I have been told by some that has travell’d there; and I am sure I mett with a sample of it enough to discourage my progress farther in Scotland; I attribute it wholly to their sloth for I see they sitt and do little”

Overall I would say this is a fascinating historical document more than a good piece of writing but I am still interested in seeing what else is included in the “English Journeys” series.

The Journals of Celia Fiennes first published 1947 by the Cresset Press.
This selection published 2009 by Penguin Books.

All the way from the US of A

Today I got my Snailr postcard from Anna Pickard. It’s postmarked 17 September so it took its time but now it’s here! Yay! Here’s me looking a lot less pleased about it than I actually am:

(I am not good at taking self-portraits, it turns out.)

This was part of a fantastic, or should I say brilliant, project that Anna devised to combine business, pleasure and travel writing in a novel fashion on a recent train journey around America. Rather than noting down her travel-related thoughts and anecdotes for herself to blog, she wrote them on postcards and sent them to fellow internet folks all over the world. Here’s my card:

"Wee kin hilp you"

(Yes I did very nearly forget to erase my address. That would have been bad.)

I loved this idea. It combines the old-fashioned fun of getting actual post with the super-modern ability to instantly connect with people all over the globe. Plus Anna is funny. Thanks for including me!