Tuesday, 14 June 2011

travel, writing and a small world

Ben MacIntyre in The Times today (£) writes about travel and writing and writing about travel.  He pins this to the death this week of Patrick Leigh Fermor.  This is a writer I have never read, and had barely heard of until my erstwhile boss, who retired a few months ago but whom I still miss, recommended him to me, especially 'The Woods to the Water' or similar.  Soon, soon. Leigh Fermor walked from the Netherlands to Constantinople in 1933, at the age of 18.  When war broke out some years later he was shacked up with a Romanian countess in Moldavia.  How stylish is that?  Anyway I shall read him. The point MacIntyre was making is that  such a journey would not be done this way today.  After all, Leigh Fermor took a year to walk the distance (which today can be flown in two hours).  MacIntyre points out that a much more modern writer, Paul Theroux, has denounced travel writing that slips into "literary self-indulgence, dishonest complaining, pointless heroics and chronic posturing".  I submit that Theroux is guilty of all these, and that another somewhat more modern writer than Leigh Fermor, namely Colin Thubron, is guilty of none of these, and of nothing worse than of being a bit of a wanker.  However.  MacIntyre manages to contradict himself almost within every sentence.  He says that Leigh Fermor conversed on his travels with shepherds, peasants and nobles, and did so in German, Bulgarian, Greek and Romanian,  Today, he says, "English would suffice".  Oh yeah?  I have been around the Balkans a bit as a tourist, and I promise you it does not.  You can find someone to rent you a room or sell you a drink, yes, in English, but try asking in Moldova or Macedonia about disputed territories and how to get to them and where to get the bus to Village X - well, in Moldova I did it quite successfully in Russian, in Macedonia less so, having no Greek and attempting Macedonian (a Slavic language) by speaking cod Russian without the case endings.  They understood me, pretty much, but communication was not really happening.  MacIntyre says that with the death of Bruce Chatwin in 1989 the genre seemed to lose its way.  I disagree.  I read 'The Songlines' by Chatwin. about Australia,  and it was about Chatwin and not about Australia at all.  Thubron, referred to earlier, spoke Mandarin and Uighur in China, and he needed to, or he would have been robbed and possibly killed.  Pretty much everywhere else along the Silk Road some variant of Turkish will suffice.  So if I ever travel that road it will be Turkish and Chinese I learn (Uighur is also Turkic).

MacIntyre then slips into some bollocks about Barack Obama, who he says has an appeal partly derived from his roots in Kenya, Hawaii and Indonesia as well as Chicago.  Humph.

MacIntyre redeems himself at the end of the piece by quoting the immortal Emily Dickinson

"There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away"

But, but.  At present I am mostly learning Serbian (all over former Yugo this is what they speak, with small variations, whatever they say) and polishing fluency in Russian, passing by with a little light German and Alsatian.  French I have to do.  I am fluent but it is still not fun.  Sig other and I are are discussing our options re Greek, which we require for Cyprus and further afield, although Cyprus is an anglophone nation in part - should we both take Elementary Greek this autumn?  Or just one of us?

A piece of writing I did think was fantastic was also by Bruce Chatwin and is called 'On The Black Hill'.  It is set on the Welsh borders.


Anonymous said...

Not especially keen on The Songlines - but am fonder of On The Black Hill.

Chatwin was greatly loved by the ex husband who adopted a very irritating reverential tone towards certain writers of which Chatwin was one.
The others were Melville ( Moby Dick); Edward Thomas; Wyndham bloody Lewis; Ford Maddox Ford; Henry James ( Yuck);Ezra Pound; Basil Bunting; Charles Tomlinson; Dickens; Jeremy Prynne; Jonathan Bate; Thomas de Quincey; John Cooper Powys ; Brecht; Ezra Pound; Graham Swift et bloody cetera.
I loathed these texts on principle because he liked them and every time we passed a scrotty, fusty old second hand bookshop, he would go in and ask the owner if they had any first editions of Edward sodding Thomas, Richard Jeffries or Wyndham Lewis. He liked first editions. Whereas I couldn't give a shit - apart from actually liking the feel of new books whether paperback or hardback. Old books stink and linger on your fingers. He also raved on about the criticism of Frank and Queenie Leavis - and I met Mrs Leavis at a soiree at Clifton College hosted by Brian Worthington as Head of English with Christopher Jeffries in attendance.Anny Jones, braless and swinging from left to right, provided the canapes.

Actually, my university tutors had always thought that my style of literary criticsm was of the 'Leavisite' school -- and I will never think of Frank Leavis in the same way again because he is forever tainted by the ex husband's fawning sycophancy. Mrs Leavis wasn't any good, really.

Anyway, I developed a real hatred of all the writers mentioned above because the ex husband was so bloody precious about them -- and it is only in the last few years that I have read some of them either for the first time or with a clear mind.
And for the record -- yes, Dickens is worth it -- but as for Ford Maddox Ford -- well best left unsaid. Etc etc.

Anyway, Chatwin fell into that mould. But he was a very beautiful looking man. Blond; Nordic - a bit cruel around the eyes and mouth. And exploited his male and female lovers, especially his wife and also the young Jasper Conran.Shirley Conran was very good when he was dying. His life is probably more interesting than his books -- the biography is compelling. Recently, his wife published his letters. He died of Aids some time back. Early nineties.

Oddly enough, he always reminds me of Graham Swift - and I think of the Swift novel Waterland when I think of Chatwin. Though Swift is physically ugly.
Waterland is probably Swift's best book - and one of the earliest -- but it has a pretentiousness about it that is forever linked to the ex husband. I can still see him sucking on his noxious pipe ---- I mean, what young man of 27 is ludicrous enough to affect one - especially combined with clogs, long hair, velet trousers and a thick, nasty belt with a vulgar buckle? . And very dirty feet. Always dirty feet.

The current husband is, at the moment, reading a Paul Theroux book . On Budapest or something. As a rule I don't like travel books. I am reading Alan Bennet's new paired short stories called Smut. Says it all really.

Anonymous said...

After I had written the first post, I then thought - why have I not mentioned In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut?

Read it!