Perceptive Travel Book Reviews February 2013
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: This month, two esteemed travel writers use contemporary journeys to explore memories of the past and their relationship with their parents. Plus a skeptical look at guidebooks that claim to reveal "hidden secrets."

The Fetish Room: The Education of a Naturalist
by Redmond O'Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier

Devotees of travel writing are bound to be able to pull from their shelves at least one volume by the mischievous English writer Redmond O'Hanlon, whether his first laugh-out-loud Into the Heart of Borneo published in 1984 or his later accounts of hair-raising journeys in the Amazon, the Congo and the North Atlantic. In these travel tales, physical nerve is wedded to narrative verve to create highly original and uniquely entertaining books. As I line up some of these titles beside me just now, the author peers out from the center of all three covers. As a travel writer, he plays a starring role in his narratives. According to this new biographical book The Fetish Room, he believes in "letting readers know fairly early on whose skin they have to creep into. They need to know the character and to understand your thought processes."

This intriguing, complex, contradictory, erudite, self-dramatizing, and amusing writer has enough celebrity status for a publisher to be interested in a memoir. But the memoir is not forthcoming. Redmond is disorganized and inept. He has periods of depression when he writes nothing. So the publisher dispatches another travel writer, Rudi Rotthier, to accompany Redmond on a series of excursions from his home in Oxfordshire, where he has a chance to indulge in his favorite pastime, spinning yarns. These reminiscences of formative experiences are then tightly and cleverly edited into a book that goes some way to revealing the psyche of this eccentric writer.

First we meet the man as he is now, no longer the swashbuckling explorer, but with hearing aids, false teeth and a tendency to drive very very slowly. Rudi asks "Has the urge to travel deserted you?" and he replies without hesitating, "Absolutely". Instead of journeying into remote corners of the world, in this book he journeys into the remote past. The two writers set off on a bumbling road trip to visit the vicarage in Wiltshire where Redmond was born in 1947 and other landmarks of his childhood. Having rejected the religion and values of his upbringing, and been miserable at boarding school, he has until now resisted revisiting old haunts. He especially hates the memory of his mother who once sneaked into his student room and cast most of his books on a bonfire.

O'Hanlon's trademark bonhomie is much in evidence, as is his legendary capacity for alcohol (especially an aptly named ale Old Tripp). His comic side is more muted than it was in his early books but still emerges. At a Fawlty Towers-like bed and breakfast on the edge of the New Forest of Hampshire, the window won't open. The receptionist tells them that it is not allowed in case the ponies in the forest stick their heads in and get stuck. Besides the key is lost.

The serious side of Redmond O'Hanlon is as a natural historian, hence the sub-title "Education of a Naturalist". For him nature is a refuge from the chaos of domestic and intellectual life. He praises natural history for never letting him down - although the shelducks he expects to show Rudi on Poole Harbour fail to materialize. It is clear that his longsuffering wife of 45 years has also never let him down. Convalescing from surgery, Belinda acts as the "cheerleader" of their journey, and they visit her at the farm in Kent where she grew up. Although it is difficult to ascertain how much affection Rudi develops for his subject, it is clear he admires Belinda. Refreshingly, he is no sycophant paying homage to a national treasure.

The fetish room of the title is an actual place in Redmond O'Hanlon's topsy turvy house where he goes to prepare himself to write. It contains powerful talismans from his life including the charred foot of his best friend who immolated himself at age 24. Perhaps he has not been as successful as he thinks at escaping the past by embracing a life of adventure travel and scientific rationalism. The tone of this remarkable book is elegiac for vanished youth.

The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia
by Michael Jacobs

Another established travel writer meditates here on his family and his past. Although Jacobs is only four or five years younger than O'Hanlon, his zeal for travel to remote places has not been dimmed. Jacobs does not travel to escape his parents, but rather to find them. He welcomes the memories that travel engenders and says "The older I get the more I appreciate the role of travel as a stimulus to memories, and the way in which journeys even to new places somehow always awaken memories of places seen in an ever-receding past."

The journey he makes to the source of Colombia's fabled Magdalena River is a springboard for memories of his parents' lives. His ambition is to interweave observations of Colombia, including its violent past and more hopeful present, with reflections on his own past. At times, it seems that he is trying to keep too many balls in the air, and some of the triggers to his memories seem a little forced. For example he claims that the poverty and beauty encountered in Colombia make it easier to conjure up his British father fighting in Sicily in WWII. But on the whole this is a suggestive and poignant synthesis of a real and a metaphorical or personal journey. On one level, the journey he describes is a metaphor for the passage into old age. Obstacles, discomforts and anxieties escalate the closer he gets to the end.

The cover photograph shows the bow of a boat heading towards a misty riverbank. The aged mind of the author's mother is now shrouded in the mist of dementia. She is being well cared for at home in England, but her son is in a constant state of anxiety. As with Redmond O'Hanlon, this is no impartial narrator hiding in the shadows. Jacobs' biography is center stage and his personal commitments continually intrude, thanks to the universal coverage of mobile phone networks. One minute he is immersed in a transcendental moment contemplating a tropical sunset, the next he is hearing from his mother's care-giver how many cornflakes she has managed to ingest, which results in a touching bathos.

The immediate spur to his journey in Colombia was a chance meeting with the country's literary hero, Gabriel García Márquez. Reputed to be suffering from memory loss, the great man brightens when Jacobs is introduced (somewhat fancifully) as someone "obsessed with the river Magdalena". The elderly writer's eyes blaze as he recalls the river which plays such a central role in his novels. He says "I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything... the caimans, the manatees...." This fleeting encounter inspires the author to journey upriver.

The first part of Jacobs' journey takes place on a dreary tugboat that makes painfully slow progress. The book improves after he disembarks from the Catalina (named ominously after a woman killed by terrorists) and he and his Colombian friend proceed into the interior by public transport and finally on horseback. The atmosphere of menace which has shadowed them is actualized in the jungle near their final destination when a small contingent of FARC fighters takes them to their camp to lecture them on the injustices of Colombian society. The writing captures the tension wonderfully, though the author can't help but find poignancy in such passionate idealism, especially when he learns not long afterwards that the guerrillas who treated them with hospitality have been bombed by the Colombian army.

London's Hidden Secrets (Vols 1 & 2)
by Graeme Chesters

Guidebook writing is a treacherous pastime. First-time visitors to a city or country want and need to be told about the greatest hits while the resident is more interested in arcane attractions such as a new sculpture in an otherwise dull residential area or a community therapeutic garden. These new companion guides to London published by Survival Guides aim to cater to both audiences, which is almost impossible. Understandably, guidebooks trying to compete in the cut-throat business of travel publishing claim to reveal "hidden secrets" (which is tautological since, by definition, secrets are hidden).

Carping aside, these volumes are useful tools to exploring one of the great (and therefore over-exposed) destinations of the world. These books will introduce the visitor to delightful corners of the city including some of my favorite museums such as the Ragged School Museum in the deprived east end and the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in upmarket Notting Hill. A selection of cemeteries, pubs, street art and much else is set out in a pleasing easy-to-use format, with a single page of text per attraction facing images and boxed information about opening hours, prices, etc. Speaking of prices, many of the recommended places are free. The maps and indexes are decent, which goes some way to compensating for the flat clichéd prose ("It is well worth making the effort to see...."). Worst of all are the sound bites applied to every sight ("A peaceful landmark south of the river" "The building that refused to die"). If the publisher's aim was to reveal the quirky side of London, it would have been better to do it in less hackneyed language.

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: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

Some review copies this issue supplied by UK bookseller Waterstones.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

The Fetish Room

Buy The Fetish Room in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

The Robber of Memories

Buy The Robber of Memories in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

London's Hidden Secrets

Buy London's Hidden Secrets in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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