Perceptive Travel Book Reviews September/October 2006
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: The Traveler's Handbook, The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express, and Narrow Dog to Carcassonne.

The Traveler's Handbook
Edited by Jonathan Lorie and Amy Sohanpaul

The Traveler's Handbook: The Insider's Guide to World Travel is an acknowledged old warhorse. But is it a dinosaur? First published in 1977 by WEXAS, the travel club-cum-upmarket travel agency, it has gone through nine editions (11 in the UK) with the new edition being published in the US earlier this year. The Handbook aims to be a compendium of hard information on a thousand topics of specialized interest from jungle survival to underwater photography as well as containing a range of informed essays on topics such as culture shock, how travel has changed in recent years and teaching English abroad (by me!).

With more than a hundred expert contributors, many of them celebrities of travel writing and of adventure (not the same thing), there is much to delight. Many of the pieces stand alone as superbly well-written and entertaining stories, which should come as no surprise given the illustrious names among the contributors like Jan Morris (here writing about Rio), Colin Thubron (on China by train) and Dervla Murphy (on independent travel). Lesser known yet talented writers share their quirky and inspiring travel experiences about crossing America by Greyhound (Irma Kurtz) or surviving a kidnapping in Irian Jaya (Daniel Start).

But all is not well with this all-purpose authoritative travel reference book. No matter how many times Jonathan Lorie (one of the general editors) uses the word hip in his essay on "Tomorrow's Destinations" (twice), the volume seems to be stuck in a retro rut. For example the eye-catching quotation chosen to accompany the entry on New Zealand ("If an English butler and an English nanny sat down to design a country, they would come up with New Zealand") might have carried some weight in the 1950s but none whatsoever now. In this age of internet travel agencies, ticketless flying and the astonishing explosion of no-frills airlines especially in Europe, articles on "Reading an Airline Ticket" or listings of Airline Head Offices Worldwide are passé. The collection of pieces about air travel takes no account of these new developments, nor does it address a topic of pressing concern to many travelers in 2006, the environmental impact of flying, nor does it inform readers how to neutralize their carbon footprint.

The really dispiriting section is the country-by-country profiles that takes up a massive 391 pages. The compact climate charts and airport-to-city centre distances for each destination may be useful - though this information is readily available online. However to condense the highlights of India or Italy into a few hundred words of potted clichés is a meaningless exercise. Even worse, those words are often ill-chosen: on Queenstown in New Zealand "Get your adrenaline pumping with a boat ride on the Shotover River" or on the town of Shkodra in northern Albania, "Today old meets new" or on Rome "this city just oozes history". The two-page entry for Burma/Myanmar does not even allude to the well-publicized controversy about the ethics of propping up the tourist industry of a vile and inhumane regime. It prefers to quote from Rudyard Kipling's 1907 poem On the Road to Mandalay. (Elsewhere the Burma question is touched on in George Monbiot's essay on "Moral Dilemmas of Travel" though with no page reference in the Index under the entry Myanmar.)

The essay on "The Hitch-hiker" by my old friend Simon Calder sums up what is wrong with this volume. It is a diverting piece written for a different era. As we all know, almost no one hitch-hikes any more (sad but true). The Polish Social Autostop Committee mentioned as providing incentives for motorists to pick up hitch-hikers hasn't done so for at least two decades and yet there it sits in the 2006 edition. After that, you wouldn't be surprised to come across instructions buried somewhere in these nearly 1,000 pages on how to send a telegram.

The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie and the Orient Express
By Andrew Eames (Reprint edition in paperback published May, 2006)

Speaking of books that are past their sell-by date, I recently reread an Agatha Christie novel and found the style outmoded and the plot anything but riveting. I have never been a fan, so was not convinced that I would enjoy the book by travel journalist Andrew Eames, which retraces a rail journey from England to Mesopotamia that the famous writer of murder mysteries made on her own in 1928. But it is in the telling, not the tale, and Eames's humorous yet humane account of his trip by various scruffy trains and buses across the Balkans and on to Iraq (on the eve of war) is thoroughly engaging.

The book opens with an evocative description of the Aleppo souq that had me wondering if in the current political climate it might be possible to find deeply discounted flights to Syria. "Entering into the labyrinth is like walking into the mouth of a French horn, into a warren of dim, odoriferous tunnels where heavily laden donkeys are still the main form of transport... and the air is heavy with cardamom-scented coffee and roasting pumpkin seeds." (The best I could find was London-Damascus on Alitalia for £327.)

Having found in Aleppo the inspiration for writing his book by meeting the elderly mother of an Armenian hotelier who had actually met Agatha Christie on her frequent stays, Andrew Eames re-starts his story in a place as different from a Near Eastern souq as it is possible to imagine. The soulless London commuter suburb of Sunningdale (where Christie's unhappy marriage finally hit the buffers) is evoked just as vividly as the Aleppo market - though in this case you will not be hastening to a travel agent to arrange a visit. Everything is over-sized -- the electric gates, the golf courses, the bejewelled matrons -- which prompts the author to indulge in a virtuoso series of riffs on the theme of Alice in Wonderland. Once he catches the train from Sunningdale to London Victoria where he will board the Orient Express and head east to Baghdad, the "off with their heads" tag seems fitting for the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was still in power when this trip took place.

After spending £1,310 to get to Venice on the resurrected luxury train that still carries its glamorous status with aplomb, the author has 1,500 miles yet to cover (which cost him a total of £72). He wends his way through the former Yugoslavia and accomplishes a near miraculous task: he makes the disintegration of that country clear and comprehensible to the reader, weaving in his encounters with inhabitants of that wounded region.

The author skilfully interweaves his own escape from "the world of the hatchback and the semi-detached" with Agatha Christie's flight from the misery of her broken marriage to the land of Mesopotamia where archaeological discoveries had caused a stir in the 1920s. Similarly Iraq was much in the news when Eames planned his journey, but for very different reasons. Perhaps this is the last book that could have been written with "Baghdad" in the title that is not primarily about war and suffering. Not that the narrator entirely avoids a brush with the hostilities that would engulf the region in earnest three months later. Near the end of the book, he wanders off from the group visiting a bleak archaeological site at Ur to seek out the dig house where Agatha met her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. A double explosion and a cloud of smoke indicate to him that a bomb has fallen and it dawns on him that he is in a NATO target zone. He never finds out whether the incident was a bomb, missile or gas attack. But it marked an abrupt and violent end to his quest, so elegantly yet modestly described.

Narrow Dog to Carcassonne
by Terry Darlington

If Agatha Christie represents a recognizably English style of the class-bound 1920s and 30s, Terry Darlington demonstrates a modern sensibility that is peculiarly English. He and his wife Monica (both retired) decide to take their eccentric whippet called Jim (a narrow dog) with them when they sail their canal boat from their home in the English Midlands to the south of France. Incredibly they take their boat across the English Channel, a daring feat which fills them all (especially Jim) with terror and dread.

If you imagine the (anti)heroes of Three Men in a Boat meeting John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, you might get some idea of this comic masterpiece. The canal system of Belgium comes across as one giant Slough of Despond yet our hero negotiates it with a grumpy grace. He has mastered that very English art of self-deprecation. Admitting that the scheme is lunatic, our protagonist mocks himself for being entirely unequal to the task. His voice is very distinctive and sustains comedy throughout by making high drama out of the mundane. Terry Darlington is an English character, himself from Central Casting, as he describes many of the minor characters in his tale - the witty pub landlord, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold.

The author's guiding principle is to pay attention to the unexpected. He is not interested in the great sights, even if they could be seen from the canalside. "The Pantheon is the sort of place you are supposed to visit, but Monica and I prefer the sort of place you are not supposed to visit". He sees and describes things that are "the real turtle, not the mock". And the book is all the better for it. All travelers are familiar with the mismatch between guidebook claim and reality and the narrator especially relishes these discrepancies. "It said in the book that the Rhône Yacht Club used to be the most prestigious club in Lyon. The clubhouse was a shed and there were seven plastic chairs and a broken yacht trailer and a barbecue."

As travel description, this is the antithesis of the gushing guidebook. Their view of Paris takes in no Notre Dame; instead it looks "more like Lagos." The prose is anything but purple; the sentences are short, sometimes almost child-like; but every word and every detail count. His language, just as his world, is teeming with life. He relies heavily on anthropomorphism: "crowds of Queen Anne's lace wave from the banks" and "tower blocks gnaw the sky" and "pumpkins beg you to steal them". And of course Jim is not just a dog but a character. When he is bursting to be taken for a walk (not always easy on a narrow boat), he "laces up his running shoes". When he barks quietly at two bellowing black dogs, the thought bubble is provided to account for the quietness of the bark: "If I was as big as you I would be quite short with you, but since I'm not, I rather hope you can't hear me".

The author has a finely honed sense of the absurd. The hilarious use of hyperbole has a twinkle in its eye. Entire conversations, including those arguments with our traveling companions with which we are all familiar, are distilled into a few telling lines. Characters met on their journey are drawn with a few deft strokes, yet are vivid and memorable all the same. There are some laugh-out loud digressions delivered dead-pan, like the recipe for nettle soup which concludes: "Then if you wish, add the nettles. It doesn't make much difference if you don't."

Not that the trip is all fun and jokes. This is certainly not a glamorous portrayal of canal cruising and the low moments sound low indeed. Several times they are tempted to give up and go home. The narrative is full of complaints about the alien way things are done in France, but these are rooted in a deep affection for a country whose language both Terry and Monica speak like natives.

Just as you can enjoy the Baghdad book without having a life-long interest in Agatha Christie, so you can still find endless delights in this book even if you have little interest in canal travel nor canine behavior. The texture and rhythm of the writing is what gives pleasure. The author wears his learning very lightly, but there are echoes of famous books and poems interwoven into the text.

From the beginning, we find ourselves rooting for this unlikely pair of adventurers. We applaud Terry's little triumphs, as when he finally masters the art of "pumping out" [the sewage] and when he ticks off a German boater who has been rude to him. There is plenty of grumbling but it is never embittered. Wisdom and tolerance are at the heart of this unusual and original travelers' tale.

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 twelve 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 has also been a contributing editor to Transitions Abroad magazine since the early days of its publication and contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.

Ms. Griffith last appeared in Perceptive Travel with "The Art of Finding Spots."

Also in this issue:


Buy The Traveler's Handbook in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

Teach English Abroad

Buy The 8:55 to Baghdad in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

narrow dog carcassonne

Buy Narrow Dog to Carcassonne in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

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