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.