Adventures in Bicycling

‘It seemed a good idea at the time,’ Rob Neillands on a unique 1,000-mile cycling adventure.

eastern-cape-winter-2011-1024x576

One of the popular laments among today’s travel writers is that nobody really travels any more – the jet plane and the hotel chain have turned travel into tourism – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Adventure is still possible. Take the little band assembled at the start of this article. Patricia, 44, a Civil Servant; George, 67 and retired; and myself, pushing 50. Our departure point, Antalya in Southern Turkey; destination, Jerusalem, 1,000 miles away; method of travel, bicycles.

These are touring bicycles, light, strong, multi-geared, but cycles change tourism into travel. They demand effort and force you to accept overnight accommodation that would be spurned by a self-respecting vagrant. They attract the not-always-welcome attention of the local people, but keep pedalling and they will get you there in the end. As to motivation for the journey, I can only say that it seemed a good idea at the time.

volume pills

The first two days were on fairly flat roads and through towns where Western tourists are not unknown, a gentle introduction to the rigours ahead. The finest remains of ancient Greece lie in Turkey, so we picnicked in the great amphitheatre at Aspendos and stayed one night among the jumbled ruins of Side. Our tours of the sites were dogged by furtive gents flogging recently-assembled ‘antiques’ and what they described as kointz. ‘You want kointz? I haf Greek kointz, Roman kointz …’

We had little need of kointz, ancient or modern, for the living so far was cheap; pounds 3 a night for dinner, bed and breakfast, in a room with a bath, though Turkish accommodation varies, to say the least.

Fifty miles a day brought us to our first major stop, the marvellous fortress city of Alanya, once a city of the Seljuk Turks. We paused for half a day here to see the galley port, and from a high point in the citadel, the ominously-named Ada-Atagi, the ‘place from which men are thrown’, we looked out at the looming snow-tipped peaks of the Taurus Mountains which lay across our path.

The road here drops sheer away for hundreds of feet into the sea and we narrowly avoided an early fatality when a lorry cut in towards us so that the driver’s mate, yelling ‘My brother, my brother’, could offer me a banana. Fortunately the traffic was light, and the drivers usually considerate. On the other hand, the gradients are steep and the road rough.

It took three full days to cross the Taurus Mountains, sleeping one cold night on the beach at Kalediran, and another in a small hotel at Anamur, a town where a most splendid Armenian castle is set by the sea, with lots of little turtles swimming in the moat. Then came more mountains and at last one long descent, an exhilarating swoop off the Taurus into Silifke and on to the plain of Cilicia. The road ran past the beautiful Maiden’s Castle, which lies just offshore, and a long day’s ride over mercifully flat roads brought us to Erdemli, where the ‘hotel’ was rather more of a hovel.

2319163_full-lnd

On now, to famous Tarsus. There is not much left of St Paul’s ‘no mean city’, except the battered gateway where Anthony first met Cleopatra, and here the bad times began. This road is the E5, that great trans-continental lorry route which begins at Dunkirk, a narrow road crammed with clapped-out, overloaded lorries heading for Syria, Jordan and the Gulf. We battled down it to the east, deafened by blasting horns, flinching at the thought of receiving a 20-ton truck in the spine.

At least the country was dramatic, for this road crosses the Plain of Issus, where Alexander the Great thrashed the Persians in 333 BC, through the modern city of Adana, then under the great Crusader castles at Yilan and Toprakkale, and brought us out of the traffic maelstrom at last, into the town of Dortyol. The hotel at Dortyol had been recommended to us by a cheery Turk we met in a cay house, and our arrival was certainly auspicious. We rode in at the head of a considerable procession which included the local policeman, the town schoolmaster, a host of bullet-headed schoolboys and, a fixture on these occasions, the town moron.

South of Dortyol, past Iskenderun, the mountains began again. Another long day, climbing the Red Mountain through the great pass of the Syrian Gates and over the plain brought us to the delightful city of Antioch, the present Antakya, 500 miles from our starting point, and in urgent need of a day off.

Antioch was a great city of antiquity, once a capital of the Selucid Empire and much later a famous Crusader principality. Today, it has a fine mosaic museum and retains the little church where St Peter established the first-ever Christian community in 47 AD. We spent most of our time wandering round the bazaar – straight out of the Arabian Nights and the best one we came across in our travels – drinking endless cups of tea with the traders. We could cheerfully have lingered in Antakya, but we had to get on, over more mountains, past the once-famous groves of Daphne, for a last night in Turkey in the little town of Yayladagi, which has 10 busy barber-shops and not a single working lavatory. The hotel here came second on our ‘pits of the trip’ scale, but worse was to follow.

Syria and culture-revulsion hit us at about the same time. We had now spent two weeks on the road and we were tired of answering the same questions, of headwinds and squalor, of the murderous traffic – we wanted toast, soft-boiled eggs, hot water, and straight answers. Instead we got Arabia.

Arabia got off to a good start. The Syrian border guards were only mildly amazed at our bicycles, the countryside was beautiful and scented with mimosa, and we got through Latakia and down the coast to Tartus without too much trouble. Even so, accomplishing the simplest task, from getting a soft drink to finding the right road could not be done without hassle, often from hostile young men carrying Kalashnikov rifles.

The food was only so-so and we were now shedding weight rapidly; I lost 20 pounds on the journey and we spent much of our time telling each other of great meals we had eaten in the past, or reading aloud the more fanciful bits in our guidebooks. Perhaps it was the bicycles, but we didn’t find those friendly locals or those sidewalk cafes and clean country hotels which these books detail in such abundance.

In Tartus we shared lunch and much arak with some Saudis and in the evening took a boat to the little offshore island of Arwad, getting gloriously lost there in the maze of alleyways and ripped off by the boatman on the way back. Riding the road to Homs gave us a great view of Krak des Chevaliers, that prototype for every child’s sandcastle, and in Homs we took another day off to visit the beautiful, butter-coloured ruins of Palmyra, 60 miles further to the east, before setting out to crank south across the desert to Damascus. After 70 miles uphill, we arrived in the little town of Nebk, where our arrival on bicycles provoked a riot.

Damascus, somewhat to our surprise, was fascinating. We awarded ourselves two days off to visit the beautiful mosque of the Omayads, the tomb of Saladin, the various museums and, best of all, the great covered souks and the ‘Street called Straight’. Once off the bicycles even the people turned pleasant. Besides, it’s hard to feel threatened in a place where the paratroopers walk about holding hands.

vigrx plus

And so to Jordan. Jordan, we assured ourselves, could only be better. The bicycles did for us again though, and it took five hours to get across the frontier. The first town, Jarash, although a tourist centre with magnificent Roman ruins, had no hotel, and our 50-mile trek over the hills to Amman lasted until midnight and was enlivened by an attempted mugging and lavish amounts of that Jordanian speciality, stone-throwing.

On the other hand, our trip south to Petra, the rose-red city, almost made the whole trip worthwhile. Twenty-two days after leaving Antalya, with 1,000 miles completed, we left Amman and sailed down the mountains into the Jordan valley where, at the King Hussein Bridge, we hoped to cross into Israel for the last 30 miles to Jerusalem. We had our West Bank passes, our visas were in order, and if all else failed, we had charm, right?
Once again, it was the bicycles. One look at them and the immigration officer went demented. If we attempted to cross with bicycles, it would, apparently, provoke a border incident, retaliation by the Israelis, possibly the Third World War. We pleaded in turn, but to no avail.

sizegenetics

Well, we were not the first travellers denied entrance to the Holy Land by Higher Authority. It happened to Moses, so we did what he did; we rode our bikes back up the mountain and round to the peak of Mont Nebo. From there we looked west, across the Jordan valley, over the blue, salt-fringed expanse of the Dead Sea to where, beyond the narrow green slash of the river, we could see our destination, the glinting towers of Jerusalem the Golden, unattainable today by travellers on bicycles.Two days later, having air-freighted the bikes home from Amman, we bumped across the bridge into Israel, where the Israeli baggage-searchers seemed quite unfazed by thoughts of searching a cycle. Too late, we cursed, and took a bus to Jerusalem where, inevitably, there were other problems. But we made it. I don’t think I’ll do it again though.

Share

Paris Removes Her Make Up

Among meter-maids, markets, sangfroid and sex shops, Michael Watkins finds a heart of gold.

meter maid policewolman giving a parking ticket in Paris Marais district

meter maid policewolman giving a parking ticket in Paris Marais district

It was April in Paris. Spring was in the air, but not, alas, in the Parisian’s step. The old man shuffled towards Sacre Coeur, dispensing breadcrumbs to the sparrows which settled upon his shoulder. He had a good face, creased as yesterday’s croissant and kind; but an air of neglect clung to him as mould does to old leather.

Leaving the birdman of Montmartre, I disdained the frontal assault on Sacre Coeur, favouring instead the sheer north col which has claimed countless wheezy victims. You set off from the Rue Foyatier, outside the Ecole Garcons, arriving at the summit 264 steps later.

The basilica gleamed denture-white as Paris dissolved into a morning haze, and the touts were out in force. The Risen Christ was a thing of wonder, but the masonry seemed lifeless; the fabric had not yet absorbed 100 years of prayer. I took exception to the notice ‘Entrez seulement si vous voulez prier’, which struck me as discriminatory. There’s some that likes to sit and pray, and others that just likes to sit.

However dismissive the guide-books (‘pseudo’, ‘jam-packed’, ‘overpriced’), I still find Montmartre fulfils my dreams of Paris. By which I mean all the gooey-lovely-schmaltzy stuff: chequered table-cloths in restaurants, the Place du Tertre jam-packed with pseudo Chagalls flogging their overpriced canvases, tourists swirling by in awed slow motion, palette-bright faces of art students emerging from their garrets to storm the boulangerie. I never starved in a garret, and so perhaps missed much.

genf20 plus

Conversely, I didn’t miss anything by shunning the delights of Pigalle which seems to survive on sex and Love-Burgers. Well, someone had to think of it: Un Amour de Burger or, if you are insatiable, a Double-Love Burger, chips and milk-shake. John Courage ale was on tap at the Cockney Tavern; while, at Le Tete d’Eau, ‘recherche hostessess’ were available to Visa and Diners’ Club card-holders. ‘Life Sho’ flickered a neon sign lasciviously, but the establishment looked more dead than alive.

Art and travel aficionados propose one stern admonishment: be selective. But I take no heed. Gluttonously do I devour a gallery; my approach to a city is similarly wolverine. Thus did I set out from the Hotel Westminster in the Rue de la Paix each morning to walk, bus or Metro for eight hours, saturating myself in this most elegant and arrogant of cities.

I stood at the corner of the Place de la Concorde, trying to cross to the Quai des Tuileries. The traffic was in full stampede, remorseless, and I knew that by the time I made it I’d need another shave. You could die and decompose on the pavement before anyone would stop. I made off in another direction, towards Les Halles and the Pompidou Centre; the first has marginally less grace than a Portacabin, the second slightly more charm than an oil refinery. Except that charm passed away with Piaf, Chevalier and Degas.

At Les Halles a drunk detached himself from a group of winos to fill his cap with fountain water, which he then discharged at a passing housewife. It was an action devoid of anything but malice.

provillus

It may just have been that lunch hadn’t yet been served. For, as Orwell noted when he was down and out in Paris, ‘most French are in a bad temper until they have eaten their lunch.’

Scuttling across to the Left Bank I made for Saint-Germaine-des-Pres where – dodging the Cafe de Flore and Deux-Magots which, lacking the physical presence of Sartre, looked merely self-conscious – I settled on a bollard at the corner of the Rue Jacques Gallot. Fourteen Sorbonne students were making music, boldly, brassily and terribly badly; which was smashing because, just as I was on the verge of abandoning hope, it incubated the Parisians’ pre-luncheon smiles.

You should, according to teacher, devote three weeks to the Louvre, I did it in two hours and didn’t miss a trick: Leonardo’s ‘Gioconda’ and the ‘Venus’ included. Not to mention those acres of swooning Rubens flesh, Bellini’s ‘Portrait of a Man’, the Guardis and the Canalettos.

I stood beneath the Arc de Triomphe, hushed and respectful with schoolchildren at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier; I walked the Champs-Elysees, resting in the symmetrically divided Tuileries Gardens; I felt the implacable, glorious weight of Notre Dame and was moved by the memorial to one million dead of the British Empire of whom most rest in France.

penomet

I took the Bateaux-Mouches ‘romantic cruise’, including a splendid dinner, feeling that they shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of floodlighting Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower just for me. On another day I was mightily impressed by Les Invalides where Napoleon’s ashes lie in a series of six coffins. I hadn’t realized there was so much of him.

I even dined at the famous Maxim’s. It was quite an experience – as it should have been for about pounds 1 a mouthful. The art nouveau appealed to me and there was so much stained glass I didn’t know whether to get on with my pigeonneau farci or pray.

Dressed up like a dog’s dinner, I was placed in the Grande Salle, a signal honour, but on balance I reckoned the waiters were better value than the clients: they wouldn’t have gone all sneery if you’d wanted garlic on your ice-cream. Some of the customers had piggy manners, discharging cigar smoke over their coquilles, and occasionally disrespectful to their female companions, allowing their fingers to do rather too much walking, as if they were reading the Yellow Pages.

Which was all very well, this slavish dedication to the obvious; but I’d also like to mention a few of my favourite things. Like the market in the Rue de Seine, where I slipped wodges of Tomme, St Albrey and Reblochon from Barthelemy’s into my plastic bag and was confronted by asparagus the size of Arizona cacti.

Like the meter-maids (aubergines, as they are known) decked out in powder-blue haute-couture-ish uniforms, with saucy hats on top; and the seats reserved for mutiles de guerre on the Metro. Like the polished jewel dazzle of the glass in Saint-Chapelle, founded it is said on the sale of the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX; or the classical purity and balance of Place Vendome.

Or the Rodin Museum, all peace and tranquillity in the Rue de Varenne, housing some of the loveliest pieces: ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Thinker’, ‘Lady Sackville-West’, ‘The Hand of God’. Or backstage at the Opera to watch a rehearsal of Giselle, somehow more haunting than the live performance, perhaps because the nerve-ends were less prettily grease-painted.

No inventory is complete without a few hates. Franglais, that bastard argot of le weekend, le cocktail, les girls. Algerian beggars barefoot in the park. The Moulin Rouge-Lido-Crazy Horse. Range Rovers, so unsmart in London, so chic in Paris. Morabito’s window display of crocodile golf-bags. Arrogance.

Yet my recurring anxiety in Maigret’s city was the Mysterious Case of Gay Paree. Whatever happened to it? Was it fact or fiction, reality or merely a myth born of desperation?

There had to be a clue; then suddenly I knew where to look. Among the Impressionists, of course. And there, in the pavilion of the Jeu de Paume, among the Manets and the Monets, Van Goghs and Cezannes, I solved the riddle: Paree was no gayer than anywhere else. There it was, in Lautrec’s ‘Jane Avril’, in Renoir’s ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’, an impression of gaiety, the mask worn by every clown.

paris_30

The discovery made me like Paris more; she was flesh and blood after all. She was almost one of us. Anyway, such was my theory as I ate that evening at Les Jacobins in the Marche St Honore. The food was delicious, the price reasonable, Madame was warmly solicitous. It was a small restaurant, a family place with 20 couverts. And into these modest surroundings dropped a party of three couples, French, American, English, in their late teens, early twenties.

They were delighted with each other and with life. They were glazed with hope, their armour untarnished; and when they looked at one another, their glances held no side. Their talk was of Paris and their love for her; and that, more than theory or legwork, was good enough for me.

Share

Get Away From It All To The Falklands

Between the glossy pages devoted to pony trekking in Outer Mongolia and bird-watching in Galapagos Islands, travel brochures will soon be singing to their richer readers the siren song of a new tourist destination – the Falklands.

Let’s face it. The only reason people know about the Falklands is because a war was fought there. But the Falklands are actually a beautiful place to visit. So push thoughts of war out of your mind and replace them with images of lush, spectacular scenery.

The Falkland Islands Development Corporation, based in Port Stanley, is going ahead with plans to establish a modest tourist industry which it hopes will attract 1,000 visitors a year and contribute an annual pounds 500,000 to the islands’ precarious economy.

By the end of this year the corporation hopes to have completed the first of a chain of 10-roomed mini-hotels on the islands’ premier wildlife sites, to insulate European and North American visitors from the worst rigours of the sometimes-spartan Falklands lifestyle. Mr Simon Armstrong, the corporation’s general manager, said in London yesterday: ‘We aim to offer them ice in their whisky and a hot bath to drink it in.’

Holidays will be sold on the attractions of the islands’ rich wildlife, including penguin, albatross, elephant seal and the unique Falklands fightless steamer duck. There are no plans to emphasize, or to offer tours of, the battlefields of the 1982 conflict.

Within the next few days the corporation hopes to be able to announce that the Ministry of Defence has agreed to extend concessionary fares to the Falklands to bona fide tourists. At present these fares are limited to islanders and others on essential business. The cost of return ticket from RAF Brize Norton to the new airport at Mount Pleasant, at present the only way of getting there, would then be reduced from the normal pounds 2,250 to about pounds 1,050.

Two-week package holidays could then be priced at about pounds 2,000, including return flight, internal air travel and accommodation.

The corporation admits that selling the islands’ tourist potential would be much easier if air links could be re-established with South America; exploratory talks are being held with Chilean airlines to examine the political and economic feasibility of a regular link with Chile.

Tourists expecting the occasional relief of a night on the tiles will, however, find that the island capital is still seriously deficient in after-dark amusement. But that will probably change over the years as the Falklands become a more popular tourist destination.

Share

Travel: The Last Wilderness of Arctic Europe

Leslie Gardiner explores northern Sweden in search of the traditionally nomadic Lapps, but finds their way of life is disappearing fast.

First sighting of a Laplander: a young girl on the sandbank of an estuary. I shout: ‘Don’t stay there, the tide’s coming in’. In near-perfect English she answers: ‘But first I catch my fish’. An hour later we met at the hotel where she works as a part-time receptionist and she showed me her string of char, about 1lb apiece. She had to wade ashore, she said, up to her hips in a swirling flood, and to get dry she ran all the way back with the fish round her neck.

She showed me photographs in books of herself on the Swedish Lapp trails, on her back her ‘kitchen’ as she calls it, at her waist a hunting knife. Up there she lives off the country, visits relatives and reverts to type. One picture shows Lena fording a torrent with reindeer. ‘You must gently coax the leader, the rest follows. They are buoyant, they float like corks.’
In another shot she is hardly visible in a melee of antlers. When they corral and segregate the bucks for slaughter, some brave person has to plunge in among the frightened animals and pick out the victims. Lena always volunteers for that job.

With the reindeer-herding Lapps she has crossed frontiers: Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union. This is permitted to the nomads as long as they keep on the move.

Her home is Gallivare, an old Lappish market town. By rail from Stockholm it takes 13 hours (three trains a day, pounds 38 single). Lena makes the trip in 10 hours, in an old MG.

These regions of Arctic Sweden, around Gallivare, Jokkmokk and Kiruna, are billed as Europe’s last wilderness. Powerful destructive torrents surge through timber bridges, the silence of the pine forests is oppressive, distances between towns are great, the snow-water lakes – unruffled and unfished since time began – mirror in spring the passage of snow-buntings, curlews and geese in great numbers.

Then, 200 miles from the sea, you hear a ship’s siren. A big passenger vessel crosses the lake. At the far end you come to a port, a lido and the first of a chain of hydro-electric stations.

We flew from Stockholm to Kiruna on the cheap flight, pounds 42 for a round trip of 1,200 miles. It is one of the world’s greatest cities – in area. And it has one of the world’s biggest mines, producing iron ore. In summer, the local tourist association runs subterranean coach tours through the mine, which has not only a road system but also rail networks, repair shops, cafes and restaurants for workers and tourists.

Within Kiruna ‘town’ – 20 miles from the main population center – we saw the transmitters, radio-telescopes and parabolic antennae of the Scandinavian space project, a geophysical research institute, a rocket-launching site, a satellite-tracking station and a glaciological survey center.

This is the fascination of Swedish Lapland: wild landscapes supporting advanced technology, the latest in scientific development cheek by jowl with a primeval lifestyle. No wonder young Lapp girls are equally at home herding reindeer and driving fast cars.

Kiruna lies north of the Arctic Circle. From surrounding hills you can see the midnight sun from May 28 to July 14, mosquitoes permitting. (We watched some go-kart racing. The karts threw up clouds of grit which, when they drifted our way, turned out to be mosquitoes.) Here you are on the Nordkalottroad or Norgevagen (‘Norway Route’), a brand new highway tracing 50 miles of the Tornetrask Lake and leaping across the backbone of Scandinavia, over frothing waterways and the moss-grown tundra which reindeer love, to the fjords of northern Norway.

Landmarks on the route at present are old navy camps and cemeteries, relics of those who toiled and perished on the iron-ore railway to Narvik.

This is Lapland, but we did not see Lapps – not real Lapps on reindeer sledges, moving up from winter forests to summer pastures. We saw three young men careering down a slope on snow-scooters – our guide said they were Lapps. We saw a helicopter herding reindeer, and passed a convoy of ex-Army trucks – Lapp families on the move. We glimpsed what was once a Lapp settlement and is now a tourist village.

The Swedes are taking over Lapland. Avid for winter sports, long-distance hiking and nude bathing in mineral pools, Swedes enthusiastically embrace the last wilderness. Adventurous people – like Lena – strap the ‘kitchen’ on their backs and head north from Kiruna, 100 miles on difficult trails to Paltsastugan, Kummavuopio and Keinovuopio on the three-nations frontier where Norway, Sweden and Finland meet.

Maybe in these ancestral homelands they come across the odd Lapp, almost wholly dependent on reindeer for food, shelter, clothing and domestic needs, sustaining a pure and unbroken tradition, leading (as Linnaeus the botanist reported) ‘the easiest and happiest of lives’.

Of some 50,000 Lapps in the world, only about 800 do that. They have become an anachronism, fated (like the Ainu of Japan, whose customs and folklore they share) to be ‘kept intact only for touristic purposes’.

Around Gallivare there are said to be a few Lapps stockbreeding and managing the reindeer; we didn’t find any. Gallivare is another mining town, railway junction and stopover for tourists, with a famous ‘Penny Church’ built 200 years ago for the newly-Christianized Lapps with donations of one penny from every Swedish household.

Southward, on the main railway to Stockholm, south of the Arctic Circle, you hit the forest region and lakeland of Arvidsjaur, bristling with camp sites, caravan parks and boating marinas. Some Arvidsjaur buildings, including Lapp sheds and pyramidical huts, date from 1820. This was a place of pilgrimage for Lapps. In June and July they still round up and mark the reindeer and on the last Sunday in August they hold their annual party. They don’t, however, hold their liquor. Two points of lager puts a Lapp in the gutter.

Late August and early September are the recommended visiting seasons, when the forests are most colorful and the midges, gnats and horseflies (the true denizens of the north, in point of numbers) begin to get their heads down.

A first time visitor might settle for Jokkmokk, which is rather more than a large village, lying on the Arctic Circle, in a quiet watered mountain-land halfway between Gallivare and Arvidsjaur. It looks out on yet another of the riverine inland seas of northern Sweden, pristine in beauty and tranquility. Its hotels are almost surrealistically new. You can rent cabins, tents and chalets along a 70-mile-long lake shore.

The municipal museum was recently enriched with the best of all Lapp collections – sheds, huts, skin tents furnished with the paraphernalia of the nomads from reindeer cloaks and rugs to reindeer-horn carvings, ornaments and utensils. Hardly surprising that the Lapp language (which is cousin to Finnish and Magyar) defines ‘reindeer’ with more than 200 nouns.

Share

Review of Travel Books Part II

M F K Fisher, too, is a writer of real charm. Not travelling but staying still, she brings the taste of foreign places to the tongue, often literally, since food is her province and Southern France her preferred abode. Two Towns in Provence (Chatto pounds 4.95 pp208) pairs up her books on Aix and Marseille. Oblique, unobvious, ruminative and strangely touching, they are a connoisseur’s distinctive contribution to the Anglo-Saxon literature of France.

So, in its day, was A Little Tour in France (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp246), the short book in which Henry James follows Balzac to Tours and points south. Art and architecture, rather than the pleasures of the table, are James’s main interest, though he does not hesitate to pronounce on the vulgarity of the claret he drank in Bordeaux. Though written 100 years ago, this book could still be used as a guide to France. The heart of western civilization, it shows, has changed less than the periphery.

The Kremlin is still recognizable from the description in Robert Byron’s First Russia, then Tibet (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp 253), but the Tibet he visited in the 1930s, a land before science, before the wheel, a theocracy with a single telephone, has surely vanished forever. For Byron, intercontinental air travel was a novelty meriting lengthy description – this part of the book reads quaintly now – and his genre-conscious irony, once spiffingly modern, now seems to reveal a certain lack of depth.

Writers with special knowledge, those for whom writing is not a trade, may well produce more valuable, more long-lasting works of literature. Henry de Monfried was a French smuggler, operating in the 1920s, and his Hashish (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp 217), though full of fibs in other respects, could doubtless still be used as a Red Sea coastal pilot. There are probably fewer openings in the drug smuggling business there these days for westerners – De Monfried’s successors are on the Caracas-Miami run now.

Whether any of them will produce as exciting a book as ‘Hashish’ is doubtful.

De Monfried’s yarns are themselves eclipsed by the Duke of Pirajno’s A Cure For Serpents (Eland pounds 4.95 pp263), the memoirs of an Italian doctor and government administrator in North Africa and Eritrea between the wars. Of all these new and antique works of travel and foreign sojourn, this is the most pleasant surprise. Passionately interested in his work, endlessly curious about the lives of his patients, the ducal doctor had access equally to Tuareg tents and portside brothels (where his speculum was known as the phallus of the government) and no compunction in describing what he saw in either.

This delightful book, from an era when delight was easier to come by, is reprinted in an elegant edition by Eland Books, as is Norman Lewis’s The Changing Sky (pounds 4.95 pp254), absorbing essays on various locales, mainly tropical, by the author of The Honored Society and Naples ’44 (both also available from Eland). Books from this publisher, it will bear saying once again, are properly bound, albeit paperbacks, and printed on decent paper. They will not fall apart on you in the train or on the beach.

Not so The Tropical Traveler (Pan pounds 2.95 pp267) whose author, John Hatt, is, as it happens, the proprietor of Eland Books. Too bad: The Tropical Traveler, an amusing and truly handy handbook now in its second, significantly improved edition, will fall to pieces well before the appearance of the third. Why can’t Pan take a leaf out of their own author’s book?

Maybe it takes fewer trees to make a tacky book than a decent, solid one. If so, it is better that books should come apart than that the biosphere should. Do we need to be told again how much we need forests? Why we need tropical ones above all? We do: and Catherine Caufield’s In The Rainforest (Heinemann hardback pounds 10.95 pp304) does it very nicely. We can manage without orangutans, without Amerindians if we have to, but not without the genetic reservoir that forms a thin, broken band round the tropics, where half the world’s species live.

Catherine Caufield’s special knowledge is ecology, most generous of the sciences of life, and this book is an example of the very high quality of contemporary scientific journalism. Modestly written, it documents the assault on the greatest miracle of nature by a human ice age, one that threatens life itself. For all the enduring delights of travel we need only read this to remember how sad a place the world has become.

Share

Real-Life Television Drama in the Border Country

According to the old television industry saw, the Border area of ITV has more sheep than viewers. Surprisingly, the joke is based on fact. Every single member of Border’s 728,388 human population is matched by 6.26 sheep, or so the censuses say. And looking at the woolly specks munching away on hillsides from Kendal to Berwick on the west coast, on the Isle of Man, across the Scottish border as far as Stranraer and beyond Peebles to within commuting distance of Edinburgh, it is, for once, easy to believe such statistics.

Border Television, which has held the franchise for the area unopposed since 1961, is one of the smallest yet, most sprawling members of the family of 15 ITV companies, and, for most of its existence, deeply conservative and shy of the public stage.

All that is likely to change, for better or worse. The external pressures which are starting to reshape British broadcasting are already being felt by the ITV network, and it may be in the modest Carlisle offices of Border that the shock waves are most acute.

A short train ride away in Newcastle, Tyne Tees Television is trying to cut costs by shedding more than a hundred staff. But Tyne Tees will remain a program-maker even after its cuts.

The fate which faces Border if there is no improvement in the advertising market goes far deeper than lost jobs. The station stands to lose its very identity, forged through the ability to make regional program. And if it does, will the rest of regional television in Britain start to take a back seat too?

One of the company’s former senior executives certainly thinks so. ‘Border is just the beginning,’ he said. ‘In a few years’ time there will only be six or seven ITV companies in Britain because that is the only way you can be viable.’

Peter Brownlow Border’s finance director readily admits that the threat is real and may not be dispelled by the company’s recent call for early retirement among its staff and other economies. Cancelling the window-cleaning contract and ending first-class travel for everyone may still not staunch the losses the company has been facing since January.

‘If there is no return we will have to reassess what we are going to do’, says Brownlow.

The company’s program controller, Paul Corley, brought in to make Border a real force on the ITV network after pioneering The Tube for Channel 4, is equally worried.

‘We’re trying to keep our heads above water until the upturn,’ he said. ‘But nobody has got any figures to prove there will be an upturn. If there isn’t we are in a very hairy position. If this continues all of ITV will have to reassess what it is really about.’

Ironically, if financial constraints force Border back into being little more than a relay station for national television, it will find itself in familiar territory. The company was thought so uneconomic for years that it was allowed astonishing leeway by the IBA. There was little programming, and abysmal internal industrial relations.

Tensions came to a head nearly three years ago when the station was closed by a technicians strike. The management lost the battle and were swiftly replaced. Jim Graham, a rising BBC star who was then heading the Corporation’s secretariat in London, was attracted to the post of managing director, and Brownlow, from United Newspapers, and Corley followed.

For virtually the first time Border tried to make programs for the ITV network. Until Graham’s arrival, the company’s only national effort was the Mr. and Mrs. series, which still runs after 24 years and makes a modest profit. The new team soon signed up the well-known Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg to front a Channel 4 documentary Land of the Lakes and Bragg joined the board. The evening magazine Lookaround gained higher comparable ratings than any of its fellow ITV equivalents.

Channel 4 has transformed Border in an astonishing way. It put up the money for the Bragg series and has also paid for a rock climbing program which was well reviewed. Next month the Carlisle studios will be host to a string of top rock bands for a Friday edition of a new Channel 4 music show.

Corley does not disguise the financial difficulties, however. He is full of ideas – one involves taking the beat poet Allan Ginsberg to the Lakes to recite. But the money must come from outside.

Under IBA rules, which take account of the station’s size, Border needs make only four hours of its own television each week. Local news bulletins and magazines account for between three and three-and-a-half hours of this quota.

The Channel 4 work may have earned Border good reviews, but it brings in little in the way of income. The bank overdraft, now reputed to be about pounds 1 million, is bigger than ever.

Laudable as the tiny company’s aims may be, there are no illusions among its staff about the pitiful financial plight which it now faces. Border’s contributions to Channel 4 and the amount it pays to the IBA for the vast and complex transmission system in its area are well below the rate normally charged.

Yet while revenue has virtually stood still, costs have soared – 8 per cent on staff wages last year, 50 per cent on fees to ITN, general programs between 25 and 30 per cent. Overall, Border must pay out between 17 and 20 per cent more than last year just to stay where it is.

In the middle of the company car park a small fish pond has been built for a nature series. A wag immediately erected a sign by the side of it which read: ‘Save Border Wishing Well’. The pennies are still coming in.

Border, ITV’s second largest region, geographically, after Grampian, stretches from north of Barrow-in-Furness, through the Lake District and across the Scottish border to Stranraer and east to Berwick and Eyemouth. The area also includes the Isle of Man.

Largely agricultural, the area has 279,000 television-watching households – 1.3 per cent of the national total. Border is the second smallest ITV company; only Channel TV has fewer employees, 75 compared to Border’s 240.

The last annual report by the Carlisle-based company, for the year 1983/84, showed that it received nearly pounds 7m in advertising revenue, less than 1 per cent of the whole of the United Kingdom television advertising cake. The next annual report, due in a few weeks, will reveal that last year’s record profit of pounds 550,000 has turned into a loss, and that there has been little, if any growth in advertising.

Border currently pays pounds 144,000 in Channel 4 subscriptions and pounds 61,266 in IBA rentals each year. Thames Television pays pounds 26,547,000 for Channel 4, and pounds 9,498,147 for rentals.

Share

Review of Travel Books Part I

Are old travel books better than new ones? This year’s are as good as any, but reprints still outdo the new pressings. Up from the cellar come the old redoubtables, Freya Stark and Jan Morris. They have written enough to be recycled year by year, book by book forever. And still they go on going round the world, round and round till they make us dizzy.

In the case of Dame Freya it is the turn of The Coast of Incense (Century pounds 4.95 pp 287), the third volume of her somewhat leisurely autobiography, covering the years from 1933 to 1939 – her first steps in Arabia and the closing of the gates of the East at the outbreak of war. Epistolatory and discursive, this is a book that can be recommended only for the seriously Stark-struck.

With Jan Morris it is an altogether more spectacular turn: ‘Years and years ago’ she writes, ‘observing that nobody in the history of man had ever seen and described the entire urban world, I resolved to do it myself.’ Among the Cities (Viking hardback pounds 12.95 pp 410) is the outcome, a selection from five previous books of essays, covering nigh on 40 locations and 30 years of travel, a chocolate box of a book – from Fortnums, as she might say herself.

It is a remarkable achievement: the industry, the grit, the man-miles, the museums. She never flags or nods; she keeps her cool while all about her are losing theirs. On the cities of the old empire and those of North America, where her impressions are backed up by real historical knowledge, she can be deeply informative, even profound; but it must be said these essays, stylish and feisty when encountered in the pages of Rolling Stone, Encounter or Texas Monthly, cloy en masse.

How does she remain sane confronted with the vastness, the dreadfulness, the dereliction, the monstrousness in these urban heaps? By subordinating them rigorously to her own joie de vivre, her pert sense of amazement. ‘Astonish me! I like to challenge the cities I visit,’ she writes. The price of poise is preciosity. The exclamatory style becomes oppressive, the very punctuation a source of annoyance. ‘Rio!’ is the title of one of these pieces. ‘Great God!’ it concludes ‘I will swap you a dozen prim and thrifty boroughs for one such lovely greatheart!’ Too many chocolates and you start to feel sick.

With Gavin Young, whose Slow Boats Home (Hutchinson hardback pounds 12.95 pp441) is the plump sequel to his equally plump Slow Boats to China (Penguin pounds 3.95 pp512), the diet is less rich and does not pall. Young is both a different kind of writer from Morris and a different breed of traveler. Where she whizzes from one city to the next, he stays right away from them. Islands are what he likes, and ships, floating islands, and those who sail on them. The style is baggier, with more time for other people’s sense of the world.

From a bath house in Hong Kong – the only city he dwells on – to a hut on Cape Horn at the height of the Falklands War Young finds people who speak freely, even when he can barely understand what they say. His journeys are animated not so much by change of landscape as by the sound of voices, songs, arguments, whispered invitations, the buzz of mosquitoes, the sigh of wind in the rigging. Slow Boats Home is a truly charming book; from the tiny islands of Oceania, paradises newly lost to drink, drugs, violence and videos, to South America, St Helena and homecoming to an England that seems to be no longer truly home.

Share

Travel: Take a Trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum

Mercifully it has not yet occurred to anyone to rechristen the Victoria and Albert Museum an Exhibition Center – since the merest ticket office has become a ‘travel center’ one cannot feel totally safe – or, if it has, the temptation has been resisted. Unlovely as such a label would be, though, it would not be wholly undeserved. In the past few years, with the opening of the Henry Cole Wing and the establishment of the Boilerhouse Project in the basement, the Victoria and Albert has so augmented its old exhibition program as to become one of the liveliest and busiest centers for temporary exhibitions in the whole of London – and this without abating at all its attentions to the needs of maintaining and enlivening the permanent collections. The old slogan ‘Spend a day at the V & A’ has never been so constantly justified.

At the moment, for example, there are at least seven temporary exhibitions in various parts of the building, with some just off and more impending. The spread of subject-matter and approach is very satisfying – especially given that where museum exhibitions are concerned we are very difficult to satisfy: if the shows are crowd-pullers we tend to think that such tourism and commercialization should be beneath a national museum’s dignity, while if they are scholarly and somewhat esoteric we also reserve the right to complain.

At present the popular end of the spectrum is represented by English Caricature, 1620 to the Present (until September 1) and Travelling With Style, a tribute to Louis Vuitton and his luggage (until September 29); the scholarly type of record exhibition by the linked shows dedicated to Bonington and His Circle and Samuel Prout (until September 15) and Three English Architects (until October 27); while somewhere in the middle come two shows vaguely connected with the recent American Festival, Lewis Baltz Park City Photographs (until July 28) and Masterworks of Contemporary American Jewellery (until July 25). Not to mention the Boilerhouse, under separate management though the same roof, where National Characteristics in Design has been extended until July 18.

This last may, for all I know, be a crowd-puller, but it emerges as the only really weak show of them all. The idea is bright enough: an inquiry into the question of whether, in 1985, distinct national characteristics of design can still be said to exist. This is done by setting up the show on a grid pattern, so that you can either follow through how one country approaches the design of, say, a bathroom, a telephone, a bicycle (push or motor), etc., then go on to another, or you can follow a particular theme crabwise across the room. Unfortunately, like a number of recent Boilerhouse shows, this one is over-designed and under-illuminating.

Otherwise, there is very little room for complaint. The scholarly shows are, as is becoming increasingly frequent these days, created rather to match and extend recently published books than being themselves the prime object of the exercise, with any allied publication a mere record of what we see. Though we have until recently been more used to the priorities being the second way round, there seems no reason why they should necessarily be so. A museum like the V and A is, among other things, a center of learning and a publisher of its fruits.

At present the museum is embarked on two valuable series of illustrated catalogues of the collection, one, in association with Batsford, covering the holdings of British watercolors in monographs, the other recording, again in monograph form, the holdings of architectural drawings.

The Bonington and Prout shows accompany the monographs on those artists (pounds 4.95 each paperback, pounds 14.95 hardback); Three English Architects makes vivid the insights offered by Alexandra Wedgwood’s book on AWN Pugin and the Pugin Family (pounds 25), Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey’s on Sir John Soane ( pounds 16.95) and Michael Darby’s on John Pollard Seddon (pounds 11.95).

None of these shows, as it happens, is just a passive appendage to the book. Not only does it make a tremendous difference to set eyes on originals, however good the reproductions may be, but, wherever there is an argument to be followed through or a fresh point to be made, pictures are usually better than words to do it, and a combination of the two gives us the best of all possible worlds. The most original point being made is that of the Bonington show, crisply presented in Marcia Pointon’s catalogue and with the background filled, in much greater detail, in her other new book The Bonington Circle (Hendon Press, pounds 8.50).

What she convincingly builds up is a picture of much more Anglo-French interchange in the 1820s than we have ever suspected. Bonington, with his residence in France and extensive acquaintance among the most notable French painters of the day, was undeniably the most talented and original figure, but he was the center of a lot of activity and mutual knowledge going back to the French Revolution and continuing to exert influence up to the middle of the century. Seeing him here in the context of such associates as his teacher Louis Francia and his follower William Wyld is a revelation, not only about Bonington himself but about the whole watercolor tradition, here and abroad, in the early Nineteenth- Century.

The other revelation in what is to be seen comes with John Pollard Seddon. Apart from Aberystwyth’s University College of Wales, a redoubtable Victorian Gothic mass in the middle of the seafront, Seddon is best known for his unbuilt buildings, mostly in London, mostly grandiose public or semi-public schemes like the Law Courts and the Monumental Halls intended to adjoin Westminster Abbey. There are evidences of nearly all his plans among the almost 2,000 designs presented to the museum by his daughter in 1896, and, if Michael Darby’s book handsomely repairs Seddon’s comparative neglect, the drawings on show offer a convincing demonstration of why we should, after all, be interested.

Soane and Pugin have been much more extensively documented in the past, though it is always worthwhile to see JM Gandy’s incomparably atmospheric renderings of Soane’s extraordinary late interiors, or make acquaintance with the recently rediscovered throne by Pugin for the House of Lords. But it must be conceded that the main new revelations here come in Alexandra Wedgwood’s book, which publishes for the first time Pugin’s notes for an unwritten autobiography and his laconic work-diaries, which reveal, among other things, an astonishing amount of travel around Britain through the years.

It is, unfortunately, improbable that this was achieved in anything like the high style indicated by the Vuitton exhibition. This marks the opening of the London branch of Vuitton a century ago, and the earliest piece of luggage shown, a trunk in striped canvas, predates that by just three years. Placed as it is at the entrance to the Costume Court, the show gives off a faint, nostalgic whiff of forgotton elegance and guiltless privilege, celebrating the days when anyone who was anyone of course had to have ample accommodation during even the briefest, most informal trip for his white evening gloves and a variety of stiff collars and bow ties.

For sheer entertainment, though, it would be difficult to beat the English Caricature show. This has been put together with the Yale Center for British Art, and has already been seen there and in Washington and Ottawa. It contains many unfamiliar examples as well as some old favorites, and is amazing in its revelation of the consistency behind the apparent diversity. But the brilliance – the variety of brilliances – of the many draughtsmen shown constantly provokes one to further thought, further desire to know. And it is certainly good to hear the cloistered calm of a museum shattered occasionally by a discreet giggle or an out-and-out belly-laugh. It should happen more often.

Share

End Blocks on Tourism, Say Industry Chiefs

A warning that Britain could squander its enormous tourism potential unless the government acts quickly to remove obstacles to growth will be issued by top businessmen this week.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes the tourism and leisure sectors can be significant generators of jobs and investment over the rest of the century. A CBI report to be published on Tuesday is expected to support recent tourist authority estimates that 400,000 new jobs could be added to the 1.2m already in the industry.

Like the tourist authorities, the CBI is concerned that visitors may be deterred by a lack of adequate facilities. In particular, it wants restrictions on hotel building removed and more spending on Britain’s infrastructure, such as roads and ports. The CBI’s demand comes in a week when Britain’s hotels will be bursting at the seams with tourists.

London in particular faces its biggest test as up to 20,000 visitors arrive for an American lawyers’ conference and there are fears that many tourists with confirmed reservations could be ‘dumped’ out of overbooked hotels.

‘July will be the worst month,’ said David Cianfarani, a director of Anglo World Travel and vice-chairman of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association.

If they are full the hotels’ practice is to ‘book out’ guests to another hotel of equal or higher standard in the same area – in the trade it is called a ‘walk’. But the immense pressure on hotel space this year, particularly in London which will receive a record 8.8m foreign visitors, has meant that in some cases the ‘walk’ becomes a long ride.

One group of American tourists who had confirmed bookings in London for two days recently found themselves in Birmingham one night and Dover the next. A Danish tour operator had a group ‘booked out’ from London to Cambridge.

Hotels overbook for the same reason as airlines: the high percentage of ‘no shows’ by clients. This year, with the weak pound, the flood of early reservations from abroad led many hotels to overbook, expecting later cancellations which have often not materialized.

American Express, which is organizing the American Bar Association’s annual conference, has booked the lawyers and their families and friends into 100 hotels and says it has no difficulties. But other tour operators are complaining bitterly at the extra pressure on rooms and are expecting great difficulty in ‘booking out’ because alternative hotels are also full.

The tour companies claim that hoteliers are taking advantage of the demand for beds to cancel group bookings – which are made at a discount – and to charge higher rates for individual guests.

John Boon, chairman of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, said: ‘There are always unprofessional hoteliers who want to make a fast buck or who make mistakes. But with the kind of year it has been, even the most professional may from time to time catch a little bit of a cold.’

The London Visitor and Convention Bureau reports that although the percentage of out-bookings among the capital’s 150,000 beds is small, and on some nights non-existent, ‘there must be several hundred people booked out on a bad night’.

Despite the practice affecting relatively few of the tourists to Britain, there are fears that it will damage the hoteliers’ image abroad.

There is pressure on rooms especially in London, because the number in the capital has remained static since the 1970s. As well as planning restrictions this is blamed on lack foresight, of the growth of tourism, individual boroughs; fear of ‘tourist pollution’ and the cost of new hotels – put at pounds 65,000 a room.

Nadeem Bibby, the manager of Nawas International, a tour operator, proposes drastic measures: ‘The government or the British Tourist Authority should not allow large conventions to take place during the peak season because this kills off the regular tourist business. They should take action to build more first-class and tourist hotels in central London. Otherwise it’s senseless to continue promoting Britain as a center of visual data.’

The English Tourist Board, now merged with the British Tourist Authority, presents its annual report on Thursday. Duncan Bluck, the chairman, will disclose figures pointing to another record year in 1985 for the industry, which last year enjoyed its highest number of visitors and spending.

Share

Benefits of Visual Data System’s Surrogate Travel

There is an explosion on a North Sea oil rig. How do the emergency services find their way in darkness down smoke-filled corridors? Until recently they had to rely on maps, plans and fading memory of what the innards of the rig looked like.

But now a new computer-backed video process allows them to ‘visit’ the disaster area before they attempt a rescue. Visual Data System’s Surrogate Travel enables viewers to find their way, on a screen, through any environment, from city streets to a sewer system. These can be filmed in a variety of conditions, for instance by day or night, or in smoke, or on a bicycle.

By moving a joystick in any of four directions, the user can turn left or right, climb or descend staircase, or, using four option buttons, zoom in on such details as the locks on a door.

The location is first filmed in the form of a tour, in separate sections for each corridor, room or staircase, and then recorded on a video disc. Viewers can then go anywhere the cameraman has been. Whenever they make a turning at an intersection, the next part of the tour is electronically called up in five seconds at the most, which is as long as it takes the computer to search the entire disc.

Viewers can switch from touring corridors to a ‘where am I?’ mode, calling up maps, or moving from a head-high view of streets to an overhead, helicopter view.

The system was developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the American military and security services. Last year it was used at the Los Angeles Olympics to give security officers a complete record of rooms and corridors in the Olympic complex.

Peaceful applications could soon include guiding people around labyrinthine cruise liner corridors or a major city’s metro stations. The system could also serve as a visual reference book of a water authority’s pipelines or of the insides of a local authority’s housing stock. The discs, read by laser, allow very quick access, and, unlike tape, do not wear out. ‘The secret is knowing how to film the environment and edit it on to the disc in a natural way,’ said William Donelson, of Visual Data Systems, which is introducing the concept to Europe.

Another application of the video guided tour is in selling buildings yet to be built. Video Presentations has adapted a miniature video camera with a 10 millimeter diameter periscope lens which is held on a gantry to peer inside detailed models of proposed buildings.

The company has completed a 15-minute video presentation of a pounds 16m office complex in Monaco. It filmed the inside of a 3ft high model, meticulously shifting the camera’s position to simulate the perspective of a moving guide.

Sequences of an actor filmed against a plain blue background with the camera adjusted to ignore blue are superimposed on to the film of the building. The actor appears to stroll through a life-size building, pointing out its charms.

The object is to let the offices before they are completed, culminating the average 18-month wait between completion and occupation of a building.

Share