Three different day trips on the island of Madeira. 4×4 Jeep tour, a walk along the Rabacal Levada, and a day in Funchal at the Mercado dos Lavradores and the cable car to Monte Palace Tropical Gardens.
After months of lockdown, we were so very happy in June to get away for a week-long trip, to the Isle of Tiree, off the west coast of Scotland. Lovely island, lovely beaches, though when the wind blows you have to walk at 45 degrees. Here’s the video.
First on this list is Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. I’ve written before about Leigh Fermor. He was an adventurer who by all accounts had an appealing and entertaining character. Mani was first published in 1958 by John Murray, who had considerable faith in Leigh Fermor as a writer. It’s easy to see why, though at times Mani now comes across as a little dated in style. Leigh Fermor is at his best when he describes his surroundings and the people he meets:
The perpendicular and shadowless light reverberated from the stone with a metallic glare and the whole landscape had a slight continual shudder, trembling and wavering in the fierce blaze of noon. The only hint of salvation lay far away to the south-west. There, through a deep notch in the confining mountains, gleamed a pale and hazy vista of the Ionian with a ghost of the Messenian peninsula along its skyline. Everything, except this remote gleam, was the abomination of desolation.
Less appealing, I feel, are the many over-long digressions on local folklore, legends, and family histories, though these might be of interest to anthropologists and those studying the history of the Peloponnese. If you go there, or even if you investigate the Mani peninsula on Google maps, you’ll see that it has changed considerably from when Leigh Fermor travelled through the area with his two companions, when it was so difficult to get about that they had to hire mules and donkeys, and when strangers were so uncommon that they were usually ushered into local houses for refreshments and victuals.
What a privilege it is to read Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, by William Least Heat-Moon. I won’t go into where, or what Quoz is, as that might take too long to do it justice, but when explaining the concept Heat-Moon writes a whole chapter on, or rather around, the letter Q. ‘Q’ is also how Heat-Moon refers to his wife, by the way. Q is the first letter of Quoz, whatever ‘Quoz’ is.
As part of the chapter on, or around, the letter Q, Heat-Moon writes an imaginary letter from a reader of this book to the author (himself):
Dear Mister Fancy Author,
I’d like to querken your quiddles on the quizzities of the letter Q because they aren’t queme and leave me quaddling and full of querimony. Stick to the queeves and get quetching on your way to your quisquilious Quoz.
This must be creative writing at its best. Following this, Heat-Moon writes about various travels along the backroads of America, just like he did when he wrote Blue Highways, which was published in 1982. I remember reading, and being so impressed with, that book. In Roads to Quoz, he is interested in the quirky side of things, and it takes someone with a creative mind like himself to notice a lot of the things which he then proceeds to describe. Marvellous stuff. This is probably the most creatively-written and clever book I’ve ever read. It’s long, more than 550 pages, but worth reading to the end. My favourite chapter is The Oysters of Folly Creek, which is only three pages, but it describes Heat-Moon finding an interesting restaurant down a dirt-track on the coast of South Carolina, where he talks to an old fellow or two and has a meal of Frogmore stew and oysters. Magical writing.
Malachite and Mangoes is the second Sara Dunn book I’ve read. I wrote about her first one, Appointment in Zambia: A Trans-African Adventure, in March 2018. It told of how Sara and Ross Dunn set off from Edinburgh in a new Hillman Hunter car and drove all the way to Zambia, where Ross had a new job waiting. A completely mad trip in a car like that, but they somehow made it to their destination, and Malachite and Mangoes takes up their tale and expands on their time living in the Copperbelt during the 1970s.
Reading about their experiences very much brought back my own memories of living in Malawi from December 1983 to December 1985. Malawi was less developed compared to Zambia in those days but the lifestyle described by Sara Dunn was fairly similar to what I experienced – a fairly close-knit local community, adjusting to a different way of doing things, the frustrations and the joys, and so on. I very much enjoyed reading Sara’s account of her time in Zambia, and her book is a pleasant read. With changes in modern-day communications, those experiences can never be relived.
Near the beginning of On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Road Trip, Paul Theroux mentions some of the many travel writers who have written books about Mexico, including Charles Flandrau, D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Lawry, Aldous Huxley, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, William Burroughs, Saul Bellow. and Graham Greene (who loathed Mexico). So why has Theroux written a further one? Well, it’s not to retrace the steps of a previous traveller, not to visit a place associated with an ancestor, not to walk/run/cycle a track in the middle of nowhere, but merely because he, Theroux, is getting old but he can still drive himself places, so why not travel south, see what happens and write about it? A perfectly good reason. And he soon finds that he is enjoying himself immensely, writing about one of his brief excursions over the border before he sets off on his longer trip that, “It was as illuminating to me as any foreign travel I had taken anywhere in the world. In some ways, being so near home and taking less effort, it seemed odder, freighted with greater significance, this wider world at the end of Morley Avenue, just behind the fence.”
He also says that one great reason to travel is to destroy the stereotypes that are created about people from other places. He finds that Mexico can be a dangerous place, which of course makes for interesting writing, and that across the border from the USA are many factories producing goods for export into the States. The reason the factories have been built in Mexico is because labour is cheaper there.
Theroux travels to various places in Mexico, including tourist areas and out-of-the-way locations. He is, as always, perceptive and entertaining. He describes what he sees and who he meets, but often this prompts him to digress into other issues, and most of these are entertaining and informative. For example, in the middle of examining some policies of the Zapatistas, who have very much impressed him, he writes, “All my adult life, beginning with my teaching in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have tried to understand how to reconcile the nature of poverty, the role of charity, the intervention of aid organizations, and the maneuverings of governments, especially those in the third world.” He continues at some length, in a similar vein to what he wrote in Dark Star Safari, which I reviewed in 2014.
I’m not quite sure whether As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee, is too well-known to be included here. One day in 1934 Lee set off from his home in Gloucestershire and started walking to London but via Southampton, as he had never seen the sea before. By coincidence, Patrick Leigh Fermor, mentioned above, set off walking from London to Constantinople the year before, in 1933. Both ended up writing excellent books about their travels, several years later.
Lee worked for a while in London, then caught a boat to Vigo in Galicia, Spain, and started walking again, heading east, then south, then west, then east again and finally ending at Almuñécar, along the coast from Málaga. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning describes his journey and is a very pleasant read. England in the nineteen-thirties was vastly different from what it is like today. There were very few cars, but numerous tramps who walked the roads, seeking employment or merely having nothing else to do. It was possible to survive on very little money. Even so, when Lee reaches Spain, he describes parts of it as being like England had probably been, more than a hundred years previously. There were virtually no tourists in most of the country, many people lived extremely simple lifestyles, and there was great poverty. He found it an extremely exotic place.
“I found the Borracho sitting in a filthy room swilling wine from a goat-skin bag. A naked child lay asleep on the table beside him with its head pillowed in a half-cut pumpkin. The Boraccho had spiky grey hair and the looks of a second murderer. His face was as dark and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lip like an adder.”
Lee sometimes sleeps rough and on other occasions finds cheap places to stay for a few days. He makes enough to live on by playing his violin in public places.
In the footsteps of… Laurie Lee is some information from the National Geographic Traveller about retracing Lee’s journey.
Travel isn’t impossible due to the pandemic, but it’s definitely more difficult, and the choice of places that can be visited is limited. I recently spent a lovely short break in Greece, visiting the island of Evia, on a trip organised by Exodus Travel. Lovely country, great walks, fantastic food. Click on the arrow below for a short video of the trip.
Bad Lands: An American Romance, by Jonathan Raban, was first published in 1996. This book is not about the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but rather a little populated part of southeastern Montana. These are the prairies, flat relatively featureless grasslands, and to show how few people live in this area now, go to this Google map link for a community called Mildred MT, and see how far you have to zoom out until you can browse any street view images.
In the early part of the 20th-century potential homesteaders from eastern USA, and even towns in Europe, were attracted to this area by articles in newspapers and magazines advertising opportunities for owning plots of 320 acres. For a town dweller, 320 acres must have seemed more than adequate, and many came, built homes and attempted to live off the land. For a few years, their hard work was to some extent rewarded, but then in 1917 a dry spell began, and lasted several years. Not only that, but there was a series of extremely cold (20 to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) winters. Since then, there have been various other droughts including the dust bowl years.
Some homesteaders, in an attempt to extract more from their farms, took out loans and bought tractors and other equipment, but then slowly went bankrupt when they couldn’t afford the repayments. It was an American dream gone wrong, and many pulled out and moved further west. You need much, much more than 320 acres to provide a decent living in this part of the prairies.
Here’s an interesting perspective from the Wikipedia entry for the book “Because many of the settlers felt they had been betrayed by those who convinced them to move to the area and farm there, another societal development is observed: a fiercely independent and rebellious attitude of anti-authoritarian distrust towards Corporate America…and to a much greater extent, the United States Government.”
Raban describes all of this in a very readable way, giving examples from various family histories of those who left and others who remained.
Here’s another review of the book by Ron Scheer, with some photographs of the region.
Coronavirus has made actual travel very difficult, but it has also provided the opportunity to catch up with some travel writing. I’ve spent some time reading books by, and about, Gerald Brenan and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Brenan and Leigh Fermor were both fascinating characters with various things in common even though they were quite dissimilar in other ways. They were contemporaries, had numerous friends and acquaintances in common, and they met each other in the 1970s. Gerald Brenan lived from 1894 to 1987, and Patrick Leigh Fermor from 1915 to 2011, meaning that they both enjoyed long lives (Brenan – 92, Leigh Fermor – 96). They were both adventurers, writers, and linguists and they enjoyed travel, each spending many years in their adopted countries (Spain (Brenan), Greece (Leigh Fermor)).
‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor was a reckless adventurer who had a knack of getting on extremely well with just about everyone he met. This kept him in good stead when he decided in 1933, at the age of 18, to walk from London to Istanbul. Although quite prepared for discomfort and sleeping by the roadside or in barns, he was often passed from one landed gentry of the old European aristocracy to another, and thereby experienced a unique and sometimes lavish lifestyle that disappeared during and soon after World War II. He fought against the German occupiers in Crete, and led the group that abducted the German commander Heinrich Kreipe which resulted in various reprisals against the local population. The abduction was portrayed, not very accurately, in the movie Ill Met by Moonlight starring Dirk Bogarde in the role of Leigh Fermor. In later years he travelled quite a lot and wrote numerous books and articles, most of which were extremely well received. I enjoyed reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, and have put the Peloponnese on my travel wish list and Mani: Travels in the South Peloponnese on my future reading list.
In advance of a trip to Spain which was cancelled due to Coronavirus, I read and was impressed by South from Granada, by Gerald Brenan. Brenan’s initial attempted walk was even more impressive than that of Leigh Fermor. In 1912, at the age of 18 (as with Leigh Fermor) he set off with a friend to walk to China. They got as far as Bosnia, which was not bad going. He then served in the First World War, and shortly afterward took off for Spain, settling on his own in a house in Yegen, a small village in the Alpujarras. His main reason for going to Andalusia was that surviving there was cheap. His experiences are detailed in South from Granada. The boy can’t half write, and I fully recommend South from Granada. Village life in the Alpujarras as described by Brenan has completely disappeared, but I dearly hope to visit this area some time in the not too distant future. Immediately after reading South from Granada I started The Interior Castle: A Life of Gerald Brenan, by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Click on that link and you will find out more about Brenan’s weird (in anyone’s terms) sexuality. Gathorne-Hardy’s book goes into some detail about the life of Gerald Brenan. Brenan had great energy, often going for very long walks, and like Leigh Fermor he was not afraid of discomfort. At the same time, he frequently suffered strange bouts of ‘flu and his love life was very complex. Let’s put it this way, he enjoyed the company of younger women, sometimes much younger women. Here’s a brief biography, here’s an article in The Guardian about him, and here is a readable article by Pat Hartman about him. Brenan was much of a hippie, years before the hippies existed. He has become much heralded in his adopted country of Spain, and the home, Churriana, where he lived for thirty years near Málaga, is now the Casa Gerald Brenan cultural centre.
A Life of One’s Own: Childhood and Youth by Gerald Brenan, is on my future reading list.
Other books I’ve ended up with, and will read in the near future, which are in one way or another connected to Brenan or Leigh Fermor, include: The Villa Ariadne, by Dilys Powell, Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania, by William Blacker, Cyril Connolly: A Life, by Jeremy Lewis, and The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa. I haven’t yet gone through Gathorne-Hardy’s select bibliography, so this list will probably grow.
Bruce Chatwin spent some time with Paddy Leigh Fermor, who immediately liked him, and he also visited Gerald Brenan, who wasn’t so impressed by the energetic writer.
This was a boat trip with Sealife Adventures from Clachan Seil to see the Corryvreckan whirlpool, at the end of July 2020.
1. Ezousa Valley
2. Aphrodite Trail, Akamas
3. Troodos Mountains
4. Páno Panagía