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.

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