Good Reading : October 2007
20 goodreading ı OCTOBER 2007 categorical countries it has crossed, weary of endlessly murmuring the same monotonous complaint that it has travelled too far … Like the ocean, this river sends our thoughts back almost incalculable distances; then there is the eternal dream of Cleopatra, and the great memory of the sun, the golden sun of the Pharaohs. As evening fell, the sky turned all red to the right, all pink to the left.The pyramids of Sakkara stood out sharp and grey against the vermilion backdrop of the horizon. An incandescence glowed in all that part of the sky, drenching it with a golden light …’ A sunset is always good for a purple patch. Accounts of travel before World War II seem to us to describe a golden age: yes, an age when travel often involved inconvenience, lack of comfort, dirt and disease – but an age when it was still possible to stand almost alone a Petra or walk along the beaches of the Greek Islands without stepping over the recumbent bodies of a thousand sunbathers. But hey, one can dream – with the aid say of Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, his book about Corfu n the thirties: ‘Under the ancient fortress the waves shatter them- selves upon ledges of clean granite and ar of dazzling pebbles. Empty beaches to the north and south stun you by their silence and emptiness, and the egg-like perfection of the pebbles. Here and there, in patches of sand, you may see the weird ideograms left by the feet of herring-gulls, the only visitors.’ Not any more, they’re not. Kassopi deserted? In midwinter, perhaps. All right, I have no business complaining about the ease with which it is now possible to travel – goodness knows, I take advantage of it, and after all, turning the pages of Durrell – or indeed Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879) – the quality of the writing is so first-rate that one can perhaps be forgiven one’s unfortunate and unproductive wish to be able to turn on the television and see a newsreel of Dickens emerging shaken from the Calais boat. Fortunately there are plenty of books which deal with the present in so lively a way that one almost stops regretting the past: Bill Bryson is of course a case in point, with his spectacularly funny and alas often too accurate Notes from a Small Island, a wry and affectionate look at the UK, and Down Under, in which bits of Australia are explained to people who live in other bits. Happily, there are other travel writers as amusing as Bryson, and I now find myself in list-land, there being not nearly enough room to describe the pleasures of Evelyn Waugh’s Waugh Abroad; Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad – wonder- ully funny, it ill makes me ugh aloud; John einbeck’s Travels th Charley, in hich he explores merica with the help of his poodle; Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons: an Optimist in Andalucia; and, if you must, Peter Mayle, who floated effortlessly to bestsellerdom on a tide of rather twee sentiment. These are all what could safely be described as ‘good reads’, which I take to mean pleasure from start to finish. This is also to be had from what might be described as ‘good writing’ (without that being an even faintly pejorative term) – try Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, DH Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia , Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia , as well as the rest of Eric Newby and Patrick Leigh Fer mor. And try, too – if you feel like facing up to over a thousand pages of crowded print – Rebecca West’s quite remarkable Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – a book about Yugoslavia which, apart from describing places and people with the sure touch of a major writer, sets in context, with now chilling nostalgia, the recent history of that troubled part of the world. Mounting costs of international flights, airport tax body searches at the airport? Phooey. Settle down in the sun with a bottle, a glass, and one of the above. Derek Parker’s own book on the white explorers who mapped Australia, Outback: The Discovery of Australia’s Interior, was published recently by Woodslane, rrp $34.95. Last month our reviewer Grant Hansen said it was ‘a celebration of courage and determina- tion ... a convenient summary of the major 19th-century expeditions of exploration.’ Accounts of travel before World War II seem to us to describe a golden age ... an age when it was still possible to stand almost alone at Petra or walk along the beaches of the Greek Islands without stepping over the recumbent bodies of a thousand sunbathers.