Good Reading : July 2001
wordof mouth travel This month, Sarah Anderson, founder of the Travel Bookshop in London which inspired the film Notting Hill, retraces the footsteps of some intrepid travelers of the past. Travels with a Tangerine Tim Mackintosh- Smith John Murray $59.99 Ibn Battuta, one of the greatest documented travellers of all time, was born in Tangier in 1304. His latest biographer, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, was born in the twentieth century and lives in Yemen. Having made a serendipitous discovery of IB’s (as Mackintosh-Smith refers to him throughout) Travels in a bookshop, Mackinstosh-Smith was fired with enthusiasm to follow in his footsteps. ‘Footstep’ books have become somewhat hackneyed – but Travels with a Tangerine Tangerine (John Murray, $59.99) stands in a class of its own and the reader is soon enthralled by their joint journey. The two of them start in Tangier and travel through North Africa stopping in Alexandria – a city ‘so dazzingly white’ that Alexander the Great had green silk hung around its streets to cut the glare. Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight – Mackintosh- 38 Facing the Congo Jeffrey Tayler Little, Brown $40.00 Smith approaches it with a sinking heart, but is won round as he enters IB’s world. From Cairo IB crossed the desert to Gaza, visited Jerusalem and toured Palestine before going to Syria. Mackintosh-Smith’s journey was of necessity different; IB had reached Damascus as the fruit was ripening and stayed in Damascus attending classes on hadith (Traditions of the Prophet) in the Umayyad Mosque. Mackintosh-Smith’s compulsion is his search for the Hatters College. He writes just the right amount of history with discursive, scholarly tidbits and it all sounds so fascinating one longs to walk down the same alleys and knock on the same doors as our intrepid travellers. Mackintosh-Smith has to skip more of IB’s route, but bumps into him again in Oman where IB had noticed that ‘most of the sellers in the bazaar are female slaves, who are dressed in black’ and Mackintosh-Smith was delighted to find that most of the shops in the scent bazaar bore women’s names. Throughout, Mackintosh-Smith compares the food that IB described and ate with the meals in which he indulges: buri – grey mullet delicate in flavour and the gentlest of fish, and its roe batarikh – as expensive as Beluga today, quails bought in the suq and stuffed with onion, garlic, hazelnuts, sultanas and cumin. One of the reasons that IB’s travels are so compelling is because his greatest interest is in the people he meets – the same is true of his successor and after reading the book you are left with the feeling of having met a whole cast of characters. I feel privileged to have travelled with them and pleased to discover that this is the first of a possible trilogy. When Jeffrey Tayler, an American living in Moscow, felt restless and discontented with his life, his solution was to take a pirogue (a hand-carved boat) down the Congo River. He reckoned he needed to feel ‘possessed’ by something and that the Congo River might seize him and make him feel less discontented. An odd ambition which he has turned into a tale of derring-do in Facing the Congo (Little, Brown,$40.00) Initially his aim was to do the trip solo, but after meeting military and other officials, even the intrepid Tayler decided that to do it on his own was akin to suicide. Having bribed his way into Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Zaire he meets a Colonel who gives him a berth on his barge going upstream to Kisingali; he washes in ‘unctuous green water’ which his fellow passengers have to drink. He feels obscene on the barge because of his food supplies and money which he has to padlock into his dark, dank and cockroach-infested cabin – but he persists – writing that whenever his resolve faltered he created a fiction for himself that he had to continue. This 1100-mile journey up-river is epic enough in itself, but the true horrors don’t begin until he starts off back down Conrad’s Heart of Darkness river with his guide Desi. The trip is beset with problems – snakes, mosquitoes, bandits, wasps, machetes – you name it, they encounter it. Without spoiling the adventure element of the story, which at times is gripping, it is a relief to find out at the end that Tayler came to see that what he had done was to exploit Zaire ‘as a playground on which to solve his rich-boy existential dilemmas’. Two hundred and fifty years ago, travelling was not so much about looking for adventure, but of seeking culture. Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan (HarperCollins, $55.00) describes how, during the 18th century, a wide-range of women determined to elevate themselves through travel. In the process of travelling, the distinction between male and female activities became blurred and this gave middle-class women their first real chance of escaping from their very proscribed lives. One of the most frequent criticisms Ladies of the Grand Tour of women’s status in Enlightenment Society was the lack of education. Once abroad, these women were able to live in a far more mobile society that lived by its own rules, and they were able to start their learning. Other ladies travelled because of personal unhappiness. Lady Mary Coke, to escape the memories of her miserable marriage, Mary Wollstonecraft ‘I am not born to tread the beaten track’, to get away from an unhappy love-affair, and Lady Webster who had been forced into marriage at the age of 15, to break away from her husband. Various forms of madness were also thought to be curable by travel and ‘chasing health’ was seen as a legitimate reason to cross the Channel. However, they were not really free – taking to the road with a mass of furniture, specially designed writing tables and a large entourage of servants. ‘We had a very pleasant journey together, and find ‘tis possible to travel comfortably without that lordly person – Man!’ wrote Anne Donnellan in a letter to Elizabeth Robinson in 1739. The works of the few women who wrote accounts of their travels show a marked difference from those of men. Men’s accounts tend to be preoccupied with conquest, connoisseurship and domestication of the wild, whereas those of women record more diverse experiences concerned with individual growth, independence and health. Dolan has done a mass of research and shows us a previously much neglected area of the lives of 18th century women. Brian Dolan HarperCollins $55.00 Sarah Anderson, together with Miranda Davies, is the author of Inside Notting Hill, published by Portobello Books. As well as being an in-depth guide to the area with photos, maps and listings, it contains several essays by local writers, including Australian Nikki Gemmel.