Excessive Bitters

Jenny Diski

  • An Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveller by Jason Roberts
    Simon and Schuster, 382 pp, £12.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 7432 3966 0

In 1968 my next-door neighbour in our ward at the Maudsley Hospital for the psychologically bewildered or the just plain cross was a woman from Wales in her early twenties who had slowly been going blind since a gang of boys threw lime into her eyes when she was 15. She still saw light and shadow, so she knew if a person passed between her and the window at the end of her bed, but not who the person was. For most of the day she sat sideways to the window, on the edge of her bed, her hands flat on her thighs, her legs neatly together, her face impassive, her eyes open and blank. Her name was June. She was a large woman, a solid presence in the ward, her flat, lace-up shoes, calf-length shapeless terylene skirt and home-knit cardigan in contrast to the rest of us minuscule-skirted or antique junk-shop retro birds of paradise, miserable but making the most of being officially crazy in the crazy days of 1968. June sat epically still and refused all encouragement to engage in anything, though she’d sometimes talk to us if we sat on her bed beside her. She was hospitalised because she was depressed – a not unreasonable response to the final loss of her sight. She was on antidepressants and there was talk of ECT if she didn’t show any improvement.

According to her doctor, the major symptom of her depression was her rejection of the offer of a guide dog to live with her at home. It showed an inability to accept her situation and a mentally unhealthy resolve to remain passive and immobile. In a grim monotone June explained to us, as she had explained to the doctors, that she had never liked dogs and still didn’t now that she was blind. She had enough trouble coping with herself without having to be responsible for another creature day and night, feeding it, walking it, doing all the exercises that were needed to reinforce its training. She didn’t want a dog, she muttered doggedly. She didn’t want to be dependent on an animal to get around. And she didn’t want a white stick, either. She just wanted to sit still. But they were not going to discharge her from hospital until she agreed to go for walks outdoors with a cane, and consented to have a dog. Only an admission of helplessness and acceptance of a full-time seeing-eye canine companion would persuade them that she was no longer depressed and therefore no longer at risk. To me the fact that she didn’t like dogs was a clincher. But being blind meant that her preferences were less important than taking help from whoever was charitable enough to offer it. There was no resolution by the time I left, just a stubborn stand-off; and the threat of ECT hung heavily in the air. My guess is that either brain-zapping or the fear that she would be incarcerated for ever ensured her compliance in the end. What was odd was that the doctors’ demands were all in the name of making her independent. Choosing to sit on her bed when the light of the world was dimming was not an option.

Jason Roberts describes something of the same behaviour in James Holman who, in 1810, suddenly went blind at the age of 25:

Once hope of a cure is extinguished in the newly blind adult, there is typically a period of self-mourning, in which the individual retreats from ordinary interaction. Often they speak little, respond tersely if at all to questions, and spend long hours sitting almost motionless. It is an insulative emotional mechanism, an understandable grief response to a profound loss, but also an unconscious ritual of passage … This self-mourning is a signpost of shock and depression, but also a kind of beginning. In the self-imposed silence and stillness, a new way of comprehending the world begins to unfold.

Newly blind people keep still because they need to find out how they can know the world without using their eyes. Sighted people think of the darkness as a fairground haunted house where unnameable things reach out unexpectedly to touch and trip you. The blind also make people nervous. They wear dark glasses so that sighted people don’t have to see their eyes not seeing. They carry white canes so that sighted people can see they are blind. They are defensive in the world, sweeping the air before them with a long switch to forewarn them of anything that might trip or block them – and allow sighted people to forget that the world is arranged with the assumption of visual acuity. They are led by specially trained animals which are thought to compensate for the helplessness of the unsighted human and reassure those who can see. In previous centuries the blind were institutionalised or set to beg on the streets, dependent on the pity and fear they evoked in the sighted. The tatterdemalions added amusement to catch their patrons, dressing madly in odd shoes, weird colours and absurd mismatched clothes: blind jesters earning a carnival living on the streets.

James Holman was a blind man who rejected that fate and was briefly celebrated for it by the sighted world, until it returned him to obscurity precisely for his rejection of the way the world works. The son of a pharmacist, he had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, patrolling the seas around Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the time he went blind he’d already been invalided out of the navy for the vicious rheumatism that set in from his constant exposure to the cold, wind and rain. While he was taking the waters at Lyme he lost his sight for reasons that are still not clear. He rejected the option of living an invalid’s life with his family and applied to become one of the seven Naval Knights of Windsor. These were what Roberts calls ‘praying sailors’, a substitute for the otherwise busy and important Garter Knights who were supposed to attend services in the royal chapel at Windsor. A rather bizarre legacy funded seven ‘superannuated or disabled lieutenants of English men of war’ to pray daily in the stalls for the souls of dead royalty and the reigning sovereign. Aside from that, they were expected, required even, to do nothing. It looked like the perfect solution for Holman to live a quietly crippled life.

He was not, however, a cripple any longer. After sitting out his shock, Holman had taught himself a kind of echo-location, using a regular walking-stick with a metal ferrule, which he tapped on the ground to gather incredibly detailed information about his surroundings. His new power – which he described (in the third person) as ‘indefinable … which he believes in a lively manner gives him ideas of whatever may be going forward externally’ – promoted in him ‘an almost irresistible inclination to visit different parts of his native country, in quest of knowledge or amusement’. At 26 he was not ready to pray away the rest of his life, to say nothing of climbing the 130 steps to St George’s Chapel twice a day on his rheumatic legs. He began to get leaves of absence on various pretexts, which kept his Windsor income intact, although that along with his half-pay from the navy only gave him a tiny income of £84 a year.

Three years were spent at Edinburgh University studying medicine with the help of reading assistants, a prodigious memory and a machine called a Noctograph that used ‘carbonated’ paper and wire line guides to allow the blind to write so that the sighted could read it. His first European voyage was prescribed by his physician, who believed that the Mediterranean air would help his rheumatic pains. Instead of taking a sighted companion, he went alone across the Channel, tapping his solitary way south from Calais, travelling in coaches, receiving the amorous attentions of women who found him far more sympathetic than their husbands, and taking exercise by tying himself to the coach door with string and running beside it. In Naples he met an old shipmate turned some sort of spy, and for a while the two of them travelled together. Holman’s companion, whom he names only as Mr C–l–b–k and whom Roberts dubs Colebrook, was completely deaf. They were the inspiration, it might seem, for the movie starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder called See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which had the immortal tagline ‘Dave is deaf, and Wally is blind.’ ‘It may be regarded,’ Holman wrote in his account of the journey, ‘as a curious incident in our travelling connection – that I should want sight, and he hearing. The circumstance is somewhat droll, and afforded considerable amusement to those whom we travelled with. We were not infrequently exposed to a jest on the subject, which we generally participated in, and sometimes contributed to improve.’

He kept the true objective of his second journey a secret, knowing that with the best intentions his friends would want to prevent a blind man attempting to circumnavigate the world. Since he had very little money, the obvious westward route with long sea journeys was too expensive, so he proposed to go east, overland via Siberia on a trip that would take between five and six years. He got as far as Irkutsk before being forcibly and almost fatally escorted back to Austria by one of the tsar’s men. Roberts suggests that the Russians were hiding a considerable trade presence in America, and wanted no one, not even blind travellers, to witness it. It was also possible that a man called Cochrane who had failed to make the journey himself had denounced Holman to the tsar. Still, Holman was famous. He wrote a second book and was elected a member of both the Linnean Society and the Royal Society. The book sold well and he became known around the world as the Blind Traveller.

He made a third voyage, spending a year in Fernando Po, engaging in battles with slave-traders and malaria, and then went on to Australia via Brazil to complete a circuit of the world by 1832. But by this time the critical acclaim he had received for his first book had reversed. His adversary, Cochrane, encapsulated the public change of opinion in a review of Holman’s Narrative of a Journey, published in 1822:

What object he can have, without a servant, of going to Siberia, I know not. He, indeed, may go there as well as anywhere else, for he will see just as much … If his journal, which may be made interesting, be composed of hearsay, as it certainly cannot be of ocular evidence, he will indeed have enough to do to record the information he may receive, and which can only proceed from exiles or criminals, and consequently not to be relied upon … Who will then say that Siberia is a wild, inhospitable, or impassable country, when even the blind can traverse it with safety?

After all, what do we do when we travel except ‘see the sights’? Then, as now, landscape was almost everything. These days we spend much of our travelling time looking through lenses with a view to taking the view back with us. Local people are captured on camera, stilled and smiling, turned into views. As well as landscape, we take in paintings, buildings, costume, light. The visual is as privileged now as it was then, when travellers painted or offered visual description of what those at home couldn’t see. For some reason what things look like is paramount. How things seem, how they are, how others describe them was and is much less important. Does anyone entertain their friends with tape recordings of their holidays? Victorian sensibilities began to cast doubt over the point of Holman’s voyages. How could a blind man appreciate the world? There are all sorts of ways of understanding the world – for example, staying home and reading about it – but what the world looks like in its most picturesque parts often substitutes for knowledge. For travel to broaden the mind it was necessary to be overwhelmed by the majesty of the sights.

Roberts quotes Burke: ‘Smells and Tastes have some share too in ideas of greatness; but it is a small one, weak in its nature, and confined in its operations. I shall only observe, that no smells or tastes can produce a grand sensation, except excessive bitters, and intolerable stenches.’ These notions and the kind of review Cochrane wrote filtered down to Holman’s readers. In 1825 a 19-year-old, Thomas Giordani Wright, recorded his response to reading Holman’s book in his private journal:

Still there is something incongruous and approaching the absurd in supposing the scenes described by a journalist so imperfectly fitted to conceive them … the writer’s misfortune is constantly in your mind, has to me an unpleasant indescribable, incredulous feeling … the circumstances, anecdotes, and all his memoranda being noted from mere hearsay cannot have authenticity enough to warrant their obtrusion on the public.

Holman’s stated goal was to ‘explore distant regions, to trace the varieties exhibited by mankind’. Probably an underlying objective was to keep moving and therefore keep feeling alive. Whenever he returned to Windsor he would sink into illness and despair. He must also have felt that he was in some sense overcoming his blindness by becoming visible in the world. He wrote books not because he had done something that no one else had done before, but because he had done it differently, and for a while the originality of the enterprise was enough for a reading public, but eventually the novelty gave out. A blind traveller lacked authority, and people who read travel books want what they think of as authenticity. His book on Siberia was in its fourth printing, but the new four-volume Voyage round the World published in 1834 and 1835 sold few copies. In a review in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Holman was advised to ‘direct his energies and contemplation to some other object more beneficial to the public, and more suitable to his physical powers’. By the end of his life, he’d travelled a quarter of a million miles, and continued to write, but he was never published again.

An article in the journal Zoology published in 1859 describes where he got to in the world between 1840 and his death:

In the latter part of 1840 he embarked at Blackwall for Falmouth and Oporto, landed there, and visited the following places in succession, viz the Alto-Douro, Lanego, Oporto, Lisbon (visiting St Ubes, the salt pans of Rio Lado, Cintra, Colares and the English lines), Cadiz, Seville, Port St Mary and Xeres, Gibraltar, Ceuta, Malaga, Granada, Almeria, Carthagena, Alicante, Valencia, Barcelona and Tarragona. From Barcelona he proceeded to Majorca, Minorca, Algiers, Bona, Tunis and Carthage; thence to Malta, the Ionian Islands, Patras, Athens, the island of Syra, Smyrna, Rhodes, Beyrout and Alexandria; from thence to Cairo, Suez, Moses’ Wells, &c. Then from Cairo he crossed the desert, to Jerusalem by way of El Arish, then to Jordan, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem; then from Jerusalem to Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, Acre, Tyre, Sidon and Beyrout. From Beyrout he went to Tripoli, the island of Rhodes, Latakia, Sudea (on the Orontes); thence to Antioch, Aleppo and Hamman, by the desert, to Damascus and across the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon back to Beyrout. This he left for Alexandria, Malta and Naples, from the latter place making his way through Apulia, Calabria and Sicily to Reggio, and thence back to Naples. He then proceeded through the Abruzzi to Pescara on the Adriatic, Loretto, Rimini, Ravenna, Ferrara, Padua, Venice, Udine, Goritz and Trieste; thence to Fiume, Zara, Libenico, Nur, Seigu, Spalatio; by sea to Ragusa and Boca di Cataro, making a tour in Montenegro, and returning to Boca di Cataro and Ragusa, then voyaging to Stagno, crossing the Isthmus, thence through the Gulf of Narenta, up the little Narenta river, returning to Fort Opus and Metcavitch, and descending the main stream of the Narenta to the sea, along the coast to Spalatio, from thence going to Seigu, and entering Bosnia by Billibuch, passing to Zavena, Travnich, Kisslovoda and Sana, to the frontiers of Servia, thence to Belgrade, down the Danube to Guirgevo, Bucharest and Ibrail, across the Sereth to Galatz, thence to Jassy and through the Bukovina, Transylvania, and Hungary to Vienna. Then through Austria, Bavaria, and the Tyrol to Italy, visiting Verona, Lodi, Milan, Pavia, Genoa and Nice; thence to Toulon, Marseilles, Avignon, Nîmes, Montpelier, Cette, Perpignan, St Louis and the Pyrenees, Arriège, Bagnères de Bigorre, Cauterets, Pau and Bayonne. Thence into Spain by Vittoria to Valladolid, visiting from thence Leon, thence to Madrid, Talaverna, Badajor, and into Portugal, visiting Elvas, Lisbon, Bucellas, Figuera, Cintra, Oporto and Vigo, returning to Oporto by sea, thence by Corunna, Bilbao and San Sebastian to Bayonne. Leaving Bayonne for Bordeaux, Saintes, Cognac, Charente, Rochefort, Rochelle, Bourbon-Vuedeé, Nantes, L’Orient, Brest, Morlaix, Avranches, Granville, Cherbourg, Caen, Havre, Rouen, Châteauroux, Limoges, Agen, Auch, Pau, Cauterets, Bagnères de Bigorre, Toulouse, Lyons, Vichy, Moulins, Mâcon and Chalon-sur-Saône to Dijon, Chalons-sur-Maine, Rheims, St Quentin, Valenciennes, Lille and Dunkirk to Calais and Boulogne, returning to England in October 1846. In the spring of 1852 he again embarked from Hull for Norway and Sweden; after travelling through which countries for a few months, he returned to England. Thus was the last journey he made, otherwise than by paying occasional visits to Boulogne and Bath.

His last years were spent in a boarding house in Tower Hill; he had finally resigned his place as a praying sailor in Windsor to live off even less money. Eventually he dropped out of sight, stopped attending meetings at the Royal Society, where he was missed, and concentrated on writing his definitive Holman’s Narratives of His Travels in the hope that future generations would take note of his achievements. He died in 1857, aged 70. All his unpublished manuscripts are lost.

Holman is an extraordinary character to bring back to our attention, but Roberts has done more than that: he has made Holman the spinning centre of a story that gathers in all manner of intriguing ideas, people and things. The Blind Traveller is written as a series of accounts within accounts, Chinese box-style. Whenever a new name or new concept crops up in Holman’s life, Roberts has a new story to tell. The pleasure in this biography is not only the life it recounts but the evident delight with which its author veers off on whatever needs writing or thinking about next. It’s what biography, an often dubious enterprise, can do at its best.