In this issue: Three titles published in the last 12 months make ambitious claims. The veteran travel writer Jan Morris (who happily relented on her threat to make her 2002 book about Trieste her last) has gone back to her notebooks and created a panoptic anthology of travel moments entitled Contact: A Book of Encounters. Traveller is another insightful collection of observations made in different places and at various times. Despite the double "l" of the title, the author Michael Katakis is an American but, according to the subtitle, an American in exile. Duncan Fallowell's Going as Far as I Can about his travels and ruminations in New Zealand carries the subtitle "The Ultimate Travel Book", a boast that needs to be tested.
Contact! A Book of Encounters
By Jan Morris
From the doyenne of British travel writers comes a lovely collection for dipping in and out of at random. The UK title is "Brief Encounters in a Lifetime of Travel". It is not just the encounters but the fragments of writing that are brief, some as short as a sentence, none longer than a page. Jan Morris has the gift of distilling a memorable experience into very few words, sometimes as carefully crafted as a haiku. In her glimpses into other cultures, she has the gift of capturing the universal in the particular. With a few telling descriptive details the reader can be transported, for example, to a Basque fish market: "Come with me, and watch a full–blooded beldame selling fish upon the waterfront of San Sebastian… flanked by cronies, sitting brawnily on kitchen chairs, like a gangster's bodyguard." We have all come across this market trader in our travels and felt slightly intimidated by her. But perhaps we needn't have been because the author notices that this "empress of the fish market" is really a big softie. As soon as a baby appears on the scene, she comes over all grandmotherly and murmurs what must be the Basque equivalent of "kootchie kootchie koo".
Adjacent to the fishwife in this book is a Crown Prince of Iraq, whom Jan Morris interviewed in the 1950s. All of these startling juxtapositions are strangely satisfying, from outback hero to Kyoto geisha, polite protestors in Ottawa to gentlemanly Sherpa in Kathmandu. Many of these pieces are written in the present tense, as though they are not one–off encounters experienced by Jan Morris but episodes for Everyman. She can turn a phrase to perfection as in her description of comfortably parting from some taciturn Wyoming cowboys: like the end of a good meal, they took their leave "just before satisfaction moved towards surfeit." At 200 pages, this collection of reminiscences and sharp insights ends just before satisfaction moves towards surfeit.
Going as Far as I Can: The Ultimate Travel Book
By Duncan Fallowell
Perhaps Jan Morris's background gives her a tolerance and sympathy for the displaced and the outsider. Born James Morris, the author aged 46 underwent gender reassignment in Morocco in 1972. Not coincidentally, Duncan Fallowell was once offered a £40,000 fee to write Jan Morris's biography partly on the strength of the biography he had written of a flamboyant transsexual called April Ashley. Whereas Jan Morris maintains a dignified silence about her private life, Fallowell is less discreet as he tours New Zealand. The title is a double entendre. His two burning questions about the capital Wellington are "how long can civilization cling on?" and "where can I get some sex in this town?" The answers to both seem to disappoint him.
The danger in writing such a personal account is that it is hard to avoid self–display and an assumption that one's own hobbyhorses are just as fascinating to the reader. One of his themes is to reconstruct in his mind a 1948 tour of New Zealand by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh which has the author trying to track down a nun who nursed the great actor when he hurt his leg on stage (but only tracks down one who started work at the hospital after Olivier had left) and the theatres where Olivier performed (which have all disappeared). The trail has gone mostly cold and the quest left at least this reader equally cold.
Fallowell is unafraid to air his predilections. He obviously relishes his louche persona as someone who enjoys meeting an ex–con in Dunedin's gay sauna and fancying his chances with the hotel barman. This is all well and good but readers might be less interested in the chase than he is, and deserve to be a little disappointed at his reply to a local architecture buff who asks him if he is interested in Maoris: "not much". "You should be… They have a very interesting architecture related to that of South China" to which our travel writer replies, "I'm not very interested in China either". His interests are largely Anglocentric, paintings of New Zealand scenes by William Hodges, the artist who accompanied Captain Cook in the 1770s, of a minor English aristocrat living in Christchurch, the emigré writer Katherine Mansfield and of course Sir Laurence.
But there are flashes of good writing that capture the spirit of the South Island's magnificent landscapes. For example this description of the Catlin Hills in the remote south of the country: "Forest sweeps cloak–like all around me and invisible birds call to each other in unearthly bell–like tones and ferns trace the air with the delicacy of Adam interiors…This country grants that rarest of gifts to be free without being vulnerable." He can be amusing too, as on the habits—predictably the mating habits, described as a "ramshackle business"—of New Zealand's prehistoric looking reptile the tuatara. Since the tuatara enjoys eating its young, the hatchlings have one objective, to escape the clutches of their ravenous parents.
Cultural commentary forms a large part of the book. The author cares passionately about the preservation of decent buildings, which he accuses New Zealand of failing to do, and of pristine landscapes which are also under threat by the builders of dams, pylons and nasty holiday developments. At one point he visits a mansion and manicured estate outside Invercargill, one of the most southerly cities in the world (or "Empire" as he calls it, thereby offending any New Zealand readers) which is just next to an ancient forest. "Bursting out of native rainforest without warning on to the lawn of a Surrey mansion is a very antipodean experience". Similarly, the reader must adjust to the sudden veering between a travel writer's observations and the digressions and obsessions of his tangled psyche.
Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile
By Michael Katakis
The prevailing characteristic of Michael Katakis's travel writing is its humanity. He is moved, sometimes to tears sometimes to laughter, by his encounters with the people he has met over his decades of travel in exile. The format of the book is a succession of journal entries and letters to friends, dated but in no chronological order. Some of his short journal extracts are not dissimilar to Jan Morris's, like the life–affirming description of an early morning serenade by a street musician–cum–busker under his apartment window in Paris.
Always he is curious and sympathetic about people met, qualities which have no doubt helped to turn him into a superb photographer. The nicely produced little book includes more than a dozen of his photographs, of women gossiping in the Medina in Fez, of two gnarled Cuban fishermen proudly holding up a gutted marlin and, most poignant, a group of shyly smiling children in Sierra Leone who may not have survived the horrific civil war of the 1990s.
Travel and politics are always interconnected but in this book the author wears his politics on his sleeve. No longer believing in nationalism or unbridled capitalism, he believes in "the right of the people in these photographs to have lived their lives full measure, with hope that one day life could be better for themselves and their children". In letters to friends in the US he makes explicit the reasons for his self–imposed exile (all pre–Obama of course), that he can no longer tolerate the "ugly face of America… the arrogance, criminality and brutality" of its foreign policy.
He has sought permanent refuge in Europe and the wider world, and in the connections he can occasionally make on a personal level across cultural and linguistic barriers. Yet his cast of mind and moral seriousness remain peculiarly American, as is his uninhibited devotion to his wife, an anthropologist, lushly described in one of the final entries of the book entitled "My True North."
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 14 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Taking a Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.