Perceptive Travel Book Reviews November/December 2007
By Susan Griffith

In this issue: A Gap Year or Two: Adventures in Europe Between 1970 and 1974, Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals, and Great British Bus Journeys: Travels Through Unfamous Places.

A Gap Year or Two: Adventures in Europe Between 1970 and 1974
by Jeremy Macdonogh

It is no accident that the foreword to this book is by the acclaimed British screenwriter Julian Fellowes who also wrote Gosford Park. Just as the film is a study of the British class system in the 1930s, so Jeremy Macdonogh's reminiscences about his travels in Europe as a young man is a reminder of the survival of the upper class into the1970s. As the husband of a Lady–in–Waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, Julian Fellowes is probably right at home in this arcane world of debutantes and country houses, and I suspect that others from this world of privilege and breeding might be similarly charmed by this book. But to the egalitarian North American, it has the potential for becoming not only grating but infuriating.

The author quickly comes across as a bumptious pratt (British slang with no American equivalent meaning something like arrogant ass). He admits in the Preface that he is a 'lucky and privileged fellow' but immediately qualifies that to let us know that he is no heir to a ducal fortune. So not that privileged after all. Straight out of Cambridge University in the early 1970s and unable to step into a financial job worthy of his station because of impending recession, Jeremy heads off to Ireland, Scotland, Italy and France for several years.

After arriving in a new place, whether it is County Limerick or the Piazza Navona, it is not long before Macdonogh is hobnobbing with and often sponging off glamorous and titled friends of friends. This is not the gap year experience accessible to your average graduate, and certainly not the kind I have written about in my practical guides. His persona is as a penniless adventurer yet when in Venice he stays at the multi–starred Hotel Danieli. Good fortune seems to follow him, which some readers may find intensely irritating. He and his sister (who at age 19 seems already to be an expert in 19th century Italian history) need to find a place for lunch in Tivoli but have only a handful of lire between them. The owners of the trattoria they choose at random, anglophile to such a degree that a picture of Queen Victoria hangs on the wall, proceed to treat the undeserving pair to a free banquet befitting royalty.

In fact fine wines and fancy meals play a bizarrely central role in this book and their descriptions soon become wearing. After an altercation with a Sardinian ruffian with whose fiancée he had earlier flirted, he concludes 'I had to get my act together if I was going to enjoy my lunch at the Polo Club.' After an alcohol–fuelled first day in Athens in the company of an American journalist, the author concludes that he has 'drunk and eaten for Britain' as though this was a worthy accomplishment. One does not have to be in the least puritanical about such things to wish that he had spared the reader so much gourmandizing detail.

In the book's favor, the author is knowledgeable about art, architecture and history, and is capable of conveying his excitement about beautiful buildings and monuments. Even at his most opinionated – he doesn't think the female figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are feminine enough – he can kindle an urge to visit or re–visit Pompeii, the Roman Coliseum, Chartres, Paris and the rest.

Yet he interprets so much of what he sees in class terms. For example he is fascinated by the social composition of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican. Apparently it is the only regiment in the world where the officers (career soldiers who have advanced through merit) are from a lower social stratum than the men serving under them (volunteers from the noblest Swiss families). He concludes that this 'must make for the most extraordinary tensions'. His own encounters with noble families throughout Europe do not seem to cause him much tension apart from dinner at a French chateau when his impossibly grand hostess asks him whether his family's staff is male (good) or female (bad), and shows complete contempt when he confesses that they have neither.

His readers must submit to being addressed as though they share his background. 'Don't be snobbish about prosecco' (the Italian equivalent of Champagne) he lectures; but he needn't presume we have a view snobbish or otherwise. It is hard to imagine that if you met Jeremy nowadays in his local pub (you can't help but assume he would arrive in an old Jaguar and order a gin and tonic) he wouldn't strike you as snobbish.

Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals
By Dervla Murphy

In the opening pages of this new book by the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, the Russian equivalent of a snake oil salesman met on a train wants to test one of his products on her. She agrees to try his cure for lethargy while warning him that she is unlikely to be a suitable guinea pig because lethargy has never been one of her problems. That is putting it mildly. This indefatigable Irishwoman, who is coming up to her 76th birthday, has for many decades been travelling and delighting readers with her engaging and deeply engaged writing.

Silverland is a kind of sequel to her penultimate book Through Siberia by Accident. Having had her cycling plans curtailed by an accident while writing the earlier book, she was determined to be reunited with her trusty bicycle – one can be fairly sure that 'Pushkin' doesn't have gears––which she had been forced to abandon in Siberia on her previous trip. In Silverland she travels on the Baikal–Amur Mainline or BAM train from Moscow to the Pacific coast of Siberia. Her descriptions bring to life the poor cousin of the flashier Trans–Siberian, which connects vast little–known regions of the world, unfamiliar places that are dismissed in a sentence or two by Lonely Planet. Reading about the BAM is like having one of those dreams in which you discover hidden rooms in a house or building you thought you knew well.

Not that the book makes you want to rush out and get on an overnight coach from Victoria Station in London, as Dervla did, in order eventually to board a BAM train and head east. The Russian world she describes is often depressing in the extreme––dire poverty, environmental contamination, suffering under Stalin and now under the cruelties of Moscow–centric capitalism. But she has a gift for celebrating the survival and occasional triumph of the human spirit in adversity, which she reveals through the small true stories of the people she meets. As she once confessed in an interview, 'I have this interest in how people pick up the pieces after trauma and tragedy, and I think there needs to be a balance between the personal events and impressions and a bigger picture'.

After 55 years of travelling she has earned her stripes not just as a travel writer but as a wise human being. If she pronounces 'Happily most people in most countries are honest' when she has to leave her luggage in an unlockable station dormitory in Vanino in far east Siberia, I am inclined to believe her, and find her trust in strangers a welcome antidote to all the paranoia nowadays. Her well–informed asides and generalizations are not just based on her research, which is extensive, but on her personal experience. She does not have it on hearsay that the CIA's 'School of the Americas' manual includes information on torture; she has been shown a copy by a South American ambassador. She has seen with her own eyes the damage that the European flower import trade has on African subsistence agriculture. And all of these digressions and opinions, many of them political, grow organically out of what she sees in Siberia and the people she meets. Her clear–eyed descriptions of the people's hopes and deprivations are always tinged with humanity and tolerance.

It is hard to imagine a sensibility and background more different from that of the self–indulgent author of A Gap Year or Two. While Macdonogh presents himself as an all–knowing expert and is always mindful of the impression his tie will make, Dervla is modest and oblivious to what people think of her habits and appearance. You will never catch her in the Danieli. A few misguided friends, she tells us, occasionally urge her to 'treat herself' by staying in a comfortable hotel, not realizing that this would be anything but a treat for her.

This is a book to read with a glass of pivo (Russian for beer), preferably Guinness, which might prove especially restorative when reading her phlegmatic account of being robbed at gunpoint on a deserted road after she has finally got underway on her bicycle. But we can be sure that that unsettling experience won't deter her, nor is she likely to succumb to a sudden attack of lethargy.

Great British Bus Journeys: Travels Through Unfamous Places
By David McKie

Here is another book that promises to take us to places unremarkable and neglected, places we have never heard pronounced and are most unlikely ever to visit unless we happen to get on the wrong bus. Like Dervla Murphy, David McKie has a good mind, a humane temperament, and a penchant for the eccentric. The nature of the exercise might be unfashionable, but the muscularity of the writing and the humorful felicities on every page bring much pleasure. The book is a savory dish, peppered with obscure but riveting secret histories and salted with a curious cast of characters – a uxurious French master who married a local girl and hanged himself not long after her death, a wicked and greedy shopkeeper, a philandering clergyman who was defrocked and later savaged by an ageing lion.

The author claims that it was the music of place names that first lured him into overlooked corners of his native island, names like Claxby Pluckacre and Yaddlethorpe. He ponders place names as participles like Mucking, Bocking and Fobbing. Amazingly he discovers that almost all these places are accessible by bus (as distinct from coach which covers long distances). And it takes only a little delving to uncover stories of interest in these places. Magpie–like, McKie picks up out–of–the–way scraps of anecdote from churchyard gravestones, graffiti, posted advertisements and local archives.

And he is a master eavesdropper. Despite his claim that this is not a state–of–the–nation book, much can be learned about contemporary Britain from snatches of conversation overheard on buses––from young girls unable to decide whether to go shopping for sexy underwear or for toys, to old ladies worrying about a future care home. Like Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island, McKie catches the cadences and mindset of your average Brit, gently and wryly. Like Dervla, he is in no hurry to arrive. He hugely enjoys his ride on the number 18 bus between Bridgwater and Bincombe in Somerset when the driver loses his way and makes up time by racing at full tilt so that our author won't miss his connection.

McKie's responsiveness to townscapes and architecture is just as acute as it is to people, and his descriptions employ charming anthropomorphisms. The church spire in the fine Lincolnshire town of Louth was pre–eminent until a factory chimney became a 'thuggish competitor.' The 'mutilated rear of the town hall in Staines suggests some form of harsh amputation in the days before anesthetics.' The author admits that his destinations and journeys are not chosen for beauty and yet he stumbles upon magnificent landscapes that he convinces us are the equal of anything in France or Italy.

One of his themes is how the past mutates into the present: the jute mill in Dundee is now an Islamic Center; the duke who owned a Scottish castle commanded just as much respect in his day as the castle–owning Madonna does now; and, less happily, redundant town halls and churches have been turned into nightclubs and discount stores. He is no dewy–eyed romantic decrying all change. But naturally he wishes to extol those places that have retained a sense of their past, often by keeping their traditional shops and pubs and individuality. And on his multitude of bus journeys, he finds a reassuringly large number of places that are doing just that.

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 also appeared in Perceptive Travel with "The Art of Finding Spots".

Also in this issue:

A Gap Year or Two

Buy A Gap Year or Two in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)


Buy Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Great British Bus Journeys

Buy Great British Bus Journeys in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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