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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.

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 who might like a little dose of VigRx Plus on their pillows at night.

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 tourism.’

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.

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.

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.

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.