Gentlemen Travellers

Denis Donoghue

  • Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor et al
    Murray, 248 pp, £13.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7195 4264 2
  • Coasting by Jonathan Raban
    Collins, 301 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 00 272119 8
  • The Grand Tour by Hunter Davies
    Hamish Hamilton, 224 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11907 3

‘I am assuming,’ Paul Fussell said in Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars (1980), ‘that travel is now impossible and that tourism is all we have left.’ To be a traveller, you have to move about alone, eschew standard procedures, avoid the commonplace of maps, and hold yourself ready for adventure. The tourist class was invented by Thomas Cook when he assembled an excursion to the Paris Exposition in 1855. Tourists change their places in groups, live as comfortably as possible, take pleasure in gregariousness, obey injunctions, keep to the main roads, and fulfil plans made by tour-promoters in advance. The appurtenances of a tourist include passports and visas, travellers’ cheques, Michelin and other guidebooks, pills to prevent sea-sickness or air-fright, and phrase-books in rare cases of need. Cameras are customary, but not essential. Movie-cameras may be used, but natives sometimes resent them.

Travel may now be impossible, but travel-writing is, perhaps for that reason, much prized. To be a travel-writer, one must explore a far-flung, outlandish place and report the experience in one of the styles patented by Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Robert Byron. The scholarly version of these explorations is called anthropology, as in Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, Margaret Mead, and many American scholars in receipt of sabbatical leave and Guggenheim fellowships. If you have a sufficiently resourceful mind, and a persuasive style, of course, you can stimulate them by going for a walk along the local beach or by taking minor trips or otherwise agreeable spells abroad: Henry James in France, D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico, Lawrence Durrell in Corfu, Michel Butor in Istanbul, Henry Miller in Greece.

In December 1933, leaving his father in Simla and his mother in London, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. He was 19, an engaging lad, especially attractive to aristocrats who lived in castles and had similarly disposed friends further along the way. His inspiration for these peregrinations was Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars (1927), but he did not feel obliged to take the book too strictly or to follow its observances. The first volume of his experiences on the road, A Time of Gifts, ended on a bridge over the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary on 1 April 1934. ‘I had meant,’ he says, ‘to live like a tramp or a pilgrim or a wandering scholar, sleeping in ditches and ricks and only consorting with birds of the same feather.’ In the event, he was well provided for: money was posted to him from London and received, with impressive effeciency and foresight, at various remote calling-places. He accepted room and board whenever they were offered, mostly in monasteries and castles, and took lifts – horse, motor-car, river-steamer – when the weather was bad. The second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, takes him from the Danube in April to Orsova on 13 August 1934. A third and final volume will carry him to Istanbul.

Between the Woods and the Water describes places few are likely to know: Szob, Eoztergom, Visegrad, Cegléd, Mohács – I recall learning a folk-song in which sundry tribulations were disciplined by reflection that ‘more was lost on Mohács Field’ – Mezötur, Körösladány, Vestztö, Doboz, Békéscsaba, Lökösháza, Ineu, Ötvenes, Soborsin, Zám, NagySzeben, Tomesbi, Vidiu, Ada Kaleh. With a shock of at least auditory recognition one comes to Budapest, and rests the feet at Orsova. But before the reader has traversed these paths, he has imagined Leigh Fermor’s experience of Easter with storks, a ball in Budapest, horseback from Budapest across the Great Hungarian Plain, a camp of gypsies, Great Bustards in Vesztö, the Archduke Joseph in Békéscaba, love-making (I divine) with some girl in Transylvania.

Leigh Fermor’s method is to share cognition with the objects that provoke it. Not the ‘pathetic fallacy’, by which natural objects are called upon to be hospitable to one’s mood, but the cognitive fallacy, according to which trees take decisions because I take them in their presence. In Between the Woods and the Water a steep hill near Eoztergom ‘lifted the basilica into the dusk’, and the dome ‘surveyed the darkening scene’. Holy Saturday ‘filled the vast cathedral’, darkness ‘subdued the little Slovak church’. Later, another hill ‘lifted the empty Royal Palace high above the right bank of the river’.

These events took place fifty years ago, but we are asked to believe that Leigh Fermor remembers them. He kept a journal, and lost it, and it turned up again many years later: but was it as complete as this?

Along the eaves of the precipice of roof overhead, the jutting towers ended in disengaged extinguisher-tops, cones that alternated with faceted octagonal pyramids and barbed the eaves with a procession of spikes, while beyond them coloured tiles diapered the roofs in intricate patterns, like those on St Stephen’s in Vienna. Beyond the sallyport, the inner courtyard mounted in galleries and balustrades and tiers of Romanesque arches; cusped ogees led to spiralling steps; and indoors, springing from the leafy capitals of polygonal rose-coloured marble pillars, beautiful late gothic vaults closed over the Hall of the Knights.

Has he really remembered those diapers, those cusped ogees – he doesn’t say he had a camera and a hundred rolls of film – or has he conjured the details on the spur of the fewer images he has indeed remembered? In other respects, Leigh Fermor’s memory isn’t wonderful – he has no trouble confounding Joyce’s Leopold Bloom with that character’s father, Rudolph Virag of Szombathely, and he has forgotten to restore to ‘Elias Cavetti’ his proper name, Elias Canetti. Minor details, indeed. As a song of the open road, Between the Woods and the Water is a lively, engaging book.

On 1 April 1982, Jonathan Raban set out from Fowey Estuary in a 30-foot ketch, the Gosfield Maid, to sail round the British Isles. ‘I wanted to find out what, on earth or sea, made my peculiar country tick.’ His procedure was to deal with boat and sea for a while, call in at some port, wander around, and generally see what was happening. He went gambling in Douglas, resorted to poetry in Peel, took a grim look at warships off Plymouth Sound – a continuous source of dismay for him was the Falklands Islands war – he saw an auction of fish, had a haircut in Dartmouth, went crabbing with Geordie and Ken, visited his parents at Lymington, and entertained Paul Theroux. At Rye, he thought about Burra, a visit to the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth let him recall horrible schooldays at Worcester, at Hull he had a Lebanese meal with Philip Larkin. ‘But I like mushy food, it’s the only food I really enjoy now,’ Larkin maintained.

There is no evidence that Raban discovered, on land or sea or sky, what makes his country tick. He made such discoveries hard for himself in advance by being determined to be displeased, superior to the phenomena he encountered. He had only to see two tourist-posters to be set off spleenward:

Both posters make an important splash of what the Tourist Authority calls ‘Britain’s scenery’. The word is deadly accurate. The green and rolling hills, the packhorse bridges spanning silver brooks, are theatrical decorations, painted hangings to charm the eye. When people step out from behind the scenery, they are by definition actors, performing a play for the tourists’ entertainment. Britain goes into italic type because it is the title of a jovial masque. The dramatis personae of Britain are types and humours – figures like the genial Mine Host, the Old Salt, the Apple-Cheeked Old Lady At The Village Shop, the Country Squire, and a complete fairy story set of Princes, Queens, Princesses, Duchesses and Dukes.

Larkin’s ‘sunny Prestatyn’ says as much about tourist-posters as the theme will bear: there is no further point in being glum about them, or calling upon Plato to support your saying that it is ‘a dangerous thing to treat people as actors because they tend to lose any secure sense of their own authenticity’.

The most interesting parts of Coasting are the technical bits about winds, tides, what to do with the Gosfield Maid when things get choppy. Any business on board is better than having Raban go on yet again about Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands. Or indeed about the state of Britain in our time. In the better old days, his grandmother dined at Stanwell House, Lymington, and ‘moored Fritz, her miniature dachshund, a neurotic dandy in his lime-green knitted winter coat, to the table leg with a round turn and two half-hitches, and bribed him with scraps to stop him warbling like an off-key flute’. But Fritz would not be welcome in the dining-room now.

People were scoffing chicken liver pâté with walnuts and knocking back Château Langoa-Barton at £22.50 a bottle. They were not hushed. Their boisterous gold-card voices rang out over the tables, and they talked in the new slang of space and computers.

‘We have lift-off on the Swanley deal ... ’
‘I find the Volvo pretty user-friendly ... ’

As an expression of Raban’s blatantly-indulged assumption of his superiority, I find this persuasive. But he should stay away from restaurants and country-clubs:

In the tarmac parks of the American-style country clubs of Burnham and Cold Norton, the Jaguars lay nose-to-nose with the Daimlers and the 300SL Mercedes. Fleets of scarlet power boats slashed the Blackwater with their wakes, and the marina at Bradwell was slacked solid with Chris Crafts and Princesses. People here were fast and flash; they had fun, and they enjoyed letting other people see the colour of their money.

We took to going to a restaurant where this guiltless style of splashing-out had been codified into a ritual order: the table for eight, the steak and champagne, the torpedolike cigars, each with its long warhead of ash, the bold talk of dodges, steals and wheezes. The men talked in rapid Cockney, hurrying over their consonants and economising on grammar as if they were composing telegrams. Phoned Friday – all tied up – no problem – bloody giveaway – innit?

So why didn’t Raban pick another restaurant, and find something better to do than mind other people’s business? Anthropologists refer to ‘thick description’, meaning detailed accounts of a society, analyses so fully documented and finely amassed that the structure of the society emerges without more ado. Jonathan Raban’s descriptions are by that measure so thin that they carry no conviction. He reaches for the nearest cliché, and insists on fulfilling it. The more detail he offers, the less I find myself believing it. On board the Gosfield Maid, he seems trustworthy: on dry land, I think him no more credible than the posters that annoy him.

Hunter Davies is an expense-account tourist, not a traveller. The moral of The Grand Tour is that it is now impossible to make such a tour, except as an irony. In the 18th and 19th centuries, those who made the grand tour carried introductions, lodged with friends of friends, saw the great monuments of Western civilisation. Now a journalist uses his connections (BBC, Fleet Street) to get interviews along the way with famous people. If they are sweet to him, he writes them up handsomely: Sir Harold Acton gets a good press, the Countess Anne Maria Cicogna was nice to Davies in Venice, Graeme Souness and Trevor Francis took time out from the football pitch to chat with him, Nabokov and Davies wandered around Montreux. These men are rewarded with praising prose. Muriel Spark was stingy with her time – could she have had something better to do, I wonder, than kill a morning with Davies? – so she gets her comeuppance in The Grand Tour.

As for the trip otherwise: our journalist starts out from Victoria, takes the Orient Express to Venice, via Boulogne, Amiens, ‘a place called Domodossola in Northern Italy’, and Milan. In Venice, he stays at the Gritti Palace Hotel, no less. On to Florence, which as a tourist manqué he is committed to dislike: ‘There is a slight feeling of pride, of independence of spirit when confronted by a Famous Place, a Famous Play, a Famous Face, a Famous Painting, and finding it wanting, but then follows a feeling of some doubt. Have I missed something? Have I no taste, no education, no real feeling for culture?’ Well, now that he mentions it, I suppose the answer is: yes. Reporting on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi: ‘I have to say I found it amusing rather than moving.’ Isn’t it a shame that Hunter Davies has to say anything, if that is all he can manage to say? I demand his release.

On to Siena, and Colle di Val d’Elsa, which Davies mistook for San Gimignano (‘Jimmy, Jimmy’, as he calls it), Pisa, Genoa, Milan, Basel, Baden-Baden, Heidelberg, the Rhine trip to Cologne, Brussels – the usual party of Eurocrats offering themselves to be mocked by the journalists they entertain – then Ostend, and home.