Archive for ‘Nat Geo Traveller’

February 19, 2013

A Clever Pun About Leaving

The January issue of The National Geographic Traveller contained the last of my Paper Trails columns; for the immediate future, at least. Here it is, feat. Georgette Heyer, Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Jerome K. Jerome.



Packing for trips I’m always envious of the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. Heyer’s characters (most of them superlatively rich) never pack for themselves. There are servants for that, and the need to be well-dressed at all times trumps the need for keeping your luggage light and easily transported. Your valet will fret if you don’t carry a dozen spare cravats, and you can always hire an extra carriage or two to take the excess baggage. The hero of These Old Shades is happy to send his long-suffering valet back and forth between England and France for any small thing he has forgotten. In Devil’s Cub a character finds a few dozen bottles of good wine in a French inn and immediately arranges to hire a coach or a boat to transport it home to England.

For most of us, packing to go travelling is a little more difficult. Without a retinue of servants and with the added tyranny, if flying, of luggage restrictions, we’re obliged to somehow fit everything we need into the smallest, lightest possible bag. Magazines in their summer issues offer tips for doing this, none of which seem in the least bit practical. Before us all is dangled the mystical figure of the seasoned, sophisticated traveller who is somehow able to dress appropriately for every occasion and meet every travel emergency with the contents of a small, stylish backpack. If we were sophisticated, seasoned travellers too, is the implication, we wouldn’t be lugging around these overloaded suitcases and heavy laptop bags. And so (because rushing around airports and train stations and hauling baggage wasn’t stressful or unpleasant enough) we have to worry about looking stupid as well.

It’s at times like this that I turn gratefully to the various fictional characters who are even worse at this packing thing than I am. Perhaps the classic example is the group of incompetents who make up the title of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The early chapters of Jerome’s book are taken up with planning and preparations for the trip, and at first they seem to have things well in hand. The three men manage the arduous tasks of making lists and gathering the items on them, and all that is left is to put them into the bags. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Whole suitcases have to be unpacked and repacked, and many of their food supplies are inedible by the end of it. It’s particularly comforting to know that the narrator of Three Men in a Boat is the sort of person for whom the mere packing of a toothbrush is a challenge:

I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it.  And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.

I’ve been there.

I’ve also had nightmares about oversleeping on the morning of a journey. The three men (and dog) do just this, and start hours after they’d planned to. Another traveller who oversleeps is Bilbo Baggins, title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Waking up mere minutes before he is due to meet the dwarves who are his fellow travellers (they, incidentally, have woken up on time) at a nearby inn, poor Bilbo rushes out of the house and is well on his way before he realises that he hasn’t even packed a handkerchief and isn’t sure he wants to go on this adventure in the first place.

But then, Bilbo’s bad luck with luggage is unparalleled. He and his travelling companions have their supplies refurbished at multiple points during the journey – and each time, some catastrophe befalls them. After a visit to the friendly half-Elf lord Elrond, both their bags and their mounts are stolen by goblins. Beorn, a strange man who can turn into a bear, offers them supplies to sustain them as they travel through the forest of Mirkwood, but the food soon runs out and they are forced instead to carry an unconscious (and very heavy) friend around. And finally, when the people of the town of Dale provide them with food and ponies on their journey up the Lonely Mountain, they are forced to abandon most of their luggage and their ponies are eaten by a dragon. It’s unsurprising that by the end of all of his adventures Bilbo (though substantially richer) seems less concerned with material possessions – he’s used to losing them in pressing circumstances.

I suppose there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, unpleasant as it may be. Those of us who can’t be as superlatively rich as Georgette Heyer characters will just have to learn to travel as light as possible. The characters in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy manage interstellar travel equipped with only a towel; surely the rest of us can at least aspire to a well-organised backpack?


December 12, 2012


In November’s National Geographic Traveller I learn that the best advice to offer someone who needs to fit a definition of the sublime into one sentence and then move on from it is “don’t”.



There’s a frequently quoted section at the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the narrator describes his childhood fascination with the unexplored places of the world, represented on maps as “blank spaces … white patch[es] to dream gloriously over”. Over time, as we have learnt more about the world, those white patches have been filled in so that little of the earth is left unknown.

For most of us there are still at least two big white patches on the globe. The polar regions, both Arctic and Antarctic, are usually depicted this way on regular maps as well as the maps in our heads. Even now, with all the tools to find out at our disposal most of us know little about the physical geography of these regions, except that there’s a lot of ice and snow.

And so for centuries stories of explorers to the far north or far south have gripped us because they carry the sense of going off into the unknown. European sailors who travelled north often did so in hopes of finding “the Northwest passage”, a shortcut to the other side of the world. One such explorer in fiction is Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Walton’s ship rescues the stranded scientist Victor Frankenstein as it attempts to navigate the ice of the far north. Through a series of letters to his sister he tells the story, not only of his own frustrated quest, but of Frankenstein and the creature he has brought into the world.

Exploring the far north had a solid, practical advantage; the commercial possibilities of the Northwest passage were end enough in themselves. The farthest south was a different matter. When Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic circle and reached the island of South Georgia in the late eighteenth century he does not appear to have been impressed with his discovery. He described the land as “doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness” and concluded that if there was land further south “the world will not be benefited by it”.

Cook was probably right about the impractical nature of exploration to the Antarctic. But practicality had little to do with the fascination that the Polar Regions would have for Europeans. Mary Shelley’s Robert Walton may be on an eminently sensible mission, but when he speaks of the far north it is in terms of sheer romance, “What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?”

In large part this fascination was aesthetic. The eighteenth century was also the time when philosophers like Edmund Burke were discussing the quality of the Sublime in nature – a quality not necessarily beautiful, but inspiring awe or even terror. The bleak frigidity and extreme climate of the polar regions were a wonderful example of this. And so we have the horrors of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, about a nightmarish voyage to the south. The young heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre never leaves her own country, but she dreams of the “death-white realms” of the Arctic. And of course Robert Walton’s romantic dreams come face to face with the horror of what Frankenstein has done.

Then there are the writers who focus more on the potential for terror in these bleak regions than on their beauty. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket puts its titular character through all sorts of terrifying ordeals, including ghost ships, cannibalism and an island of evil savages. But the final horror is left unspoken. In the dreamlike final sections of the book Pym and his companions sail further south towards what appears to be an immense cataract. They see before them “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men” – and there the novel ends.

Rather less restrained than Poe is the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s obvious in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness that he’s familiar with Poe’s novel – his story makes more than one reference to it. Lovecraft’s characters are on an exploratory mission to the Antarctic, where they not only find evidence of a city much older than anything humanity can claim, but discover that some elements of this civilisation still live. Lovecraft often describes the landscape of Antarctica by making reference to the weird beauty of Nicholas Roerich’s Asian paintings. Unlike Poe, Lovecraft describes his monsters in detail – and they are no less alarming for all that they are slightly ridiculous.  Like him, though, he chooses not to describe the final horror. As the men leave the area by plane one of them looks back and sees behind the mountains something that drives him insane. The one hint we’re given is that whatever this was, the powerful inhabitants of the city feared it too. Now that men are exploring the continent, Lovecraft implies, it’s only a matter of time before this terror is unleashed.

I recently discovered the English writer Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time, a history of his country’s fascination with the vast frozen regions of the south and the far north. Spufford ends the main part of his wonderful, scholarly account with the death of Captain Scott in 1912. But as long as the Antarctic remains part-mystery, and as long as we continue to be awed by vast and empty spaces, I suspect the poles will enthrall us, in life and in fiction.


November 4, 2012

But surely you’re going overboard with the pessimistic travel pieces?

A slightly longer version of the Paper Trails column from October’s National Geographic Traveller India. The November edition is out now, and you should buy it because of the pretty pictures and me talking about Lovecraft and Poe (and some other articles also).


[Spoiler alerts for some Agatha Christie novels, I suppose]


One of the staples of the mystery story is to set a crime in such a place that only one of a limited group of people could have done it. After all, it’s not much fun for the reader who has spent the book struggling to solve the puzzle, if any random passer-by could have committed the act. This is probably one reason why the ‘country house’ murder mystery has been such a classic and successful staple of the genre. In such a story, the criminal can only be one of the house’s inhabitants, guests or staff; and over the course of the novel the reader is given reason to suspect many of them.

But there are ways to limit your pool of suspects other than isolating them in a country house. Agatha Christie offers us multiple examples of this – in her book And Then There Were None a group of people on a deserted island are killed off one by one and the murderer can only be one of themselves. And in Murder on the Orient Express it seems obvious that only a passenger on the train would have had the opportunity to kill the dead man.

Perhaps even more than a train, a ship is the perfect venue for a mystery of this sort. It’s particularly obvious that the criminal must be one of those on board when there are miles of empty ocean all around. Plus, all you need to do to get rid of the evidence (or indeed the body) is drop it overboard! A comforting thought, should one ever go on a luxury cruise.

It’s unsurprising, then, that so many mystery writers have turned to the cruise ship as the scene of the crime. An early example is that of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan Carries On. Biggers’ novel begins in London, with the death of an elderly man who is on a world tour. Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is baffled by the case. He follows the tour to France, where there is another death. It’s clear that the criminal is one of the tour-goers, and the novel follows them to Aden, Calcutta and Singapore before the murderer is finally apprehended in San Francisco. Charlie Chan, Biggers’ Chinese-American detective, does not appear until a good two-thirds of the way through; but that might just be a good thing. Biggers may have been racially tolerant by the standards of his day, but Chan’s comically broken English and ‘Oriental’ wisdom are rather cringeworthy.

Later writers have adopted the cruise as well. The eight books in Conrad Allen’s Dillman and Masefield series (the first is Murder on the Lusitania) have the two detectives investigate a series of crimes aboard various ships. The protagonist of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip begins the novel as the victim of attempted murder by her (clearly very incompetent) husband – he has thrown her overboard in the hope that she will drown. Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables takes place aboard a river cruise. One might even make an argument for Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, published last year. Ondaatje cleverly chooses not to make it the focus of his book, but the plot to free a captive criminal forms a big part of the story’s background.

So popular is the cruise trope that there exists an anthology of short stories that deal with the subject. Death Cruise was edited by Lawrence Block and contained writing by Nancy Pickard, Jose Latour, and of course Christie herself.

Christie’s most prominent ship story is Death on the Nile, in which a beautiful millionairess is murdered on an African cruise.  Less popular is the short story “Problem at Sea”, which also involves the death of a rich woman in a locked ship’s cabin. Both stories feature husbands with seemingly unbreakable alibis that prove to be somewhat less so. (In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen’s rich heroine Joey has willed her money to a charitable organisation – one sees her point).

If I had to pick a favourite cruise ship mystery it would be John Mortimer’s short story “Rumpole at Sea”. This week I reread it directly after rereading “Problem at Sea”, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mortimer had written his story partly in response to Christie’s. Rumpole and his wife Hilda (“She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed”) attempt a second honeymoon aboard a cruise ship but the mood is somewhat disrupted by the presence of a judge whom Rumpole particularly abhors, and by an overimaginative crime writer.  Here too we see the oddly-behaved husband – though his fellow passengers, having presumably also read their Christie, are immediately suspicious when his wife seems to disappear from their midst. Rumpole solves it all, while strenuously defending the right of every man to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Mortimer makes the cruise ship a less sinister place than some of the other writers mentioned here. But I’m not sure, all things considered, that I’ll ever have the courage to board one.


October 2, 2012

Here be Myrmidons

On twitter earlier today I worried that my columns for the National Geographic Traveller seemed more likely to dissuade people from travel than otherwise – in the October issue (out now!) I discuss the usefulness of cruise ships to potential murderers, and November and December’s projected pieces aren’t particularly cheerful either. In last month’s column, of which a longer version is reproduced below, I go a step further and suggest that travel writing and travel writers themselves are inherently suspicious. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant editor.

The Hav books and The Islanders are glorious, complex things, and I’d love to write more about them free of time and wordcount constraints.  An earlier version of this piece contained a section on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that I left it out.



The publication of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav caused some confusion among readers. Written in 1985, this travel narrative took the form of a series of dispatches from a historical city; twenty years later Morris would revisit the city with the publication of Hav of the Myrmidons. Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to my edition of Morris’ two Hav books that aspiring travellers were surprised by the difficulty of getting to Hav. Why anyone should have wanted to visit a place that was, according to Morris, in the throes of a violent revolution remains a mystery, but the real problem was that Hav had never existed.

To set a book in a fictional place is nothing new. Fantasy writers have been doing it for years, providing elaborate maps, family trees and histories for worlds that never existed. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, know that The Lord of the Rings was only a miniscule part of his universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has its own creation myth as well as multiple entire languages created by the author.

All this takes dedication (and a certain level of obsession). But to create a new city in our own world is something else entirely. For Hav to be plausible, Morris has to rewrite all of human history. She inserts the city into the Iliad and the Bible; she makes it an important point on the Silk Route, and the site of an historic meeting between the Attaturk and Lawrence of Arabia. Ibn Battuta writes of the city, as does Marco Polo.

Marco Polo is a useful clue here to the nature of Hav. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has the Italian explorer describing to Kublai Khan a host of fictional cities, each a meditation on the words and signs we use to experience, think of and talk about other places.

The invocation of Marco Polo is not the only way in which Hav flaunts its fictionality. Morris rather cheekily has a character express indignation at the marginalisation of the city in the histories of the writer Braudel, and later has her narrator describe it as looking “like a city of pure fiction”.

It’s tempting to see the Hav books as straightforward imitations of travel writing, but of a place that doesn’t exist. But the “Jan Morris” who is the narrator of a travelogue is not the same as the Jan Morris who is the author of two works of fiction. Sometimes it seems clear that “Jan” is a creation of parody. Both books are full of genre-specific cliché – native bazaars, inefficient foreign bureaucracies, lost glories of the past, the inscrutability of Chinese immigrants. “Jan” is constantly attempting to write herself into this history; she strives to find historical affinities between her own  (Welsh) background and Hav’s early Kretev settlers, insists that she has inside knowledge that is unavailable to others, and shows contempt of other tourists whose experience of the city is less ‘authentic’ than her own. We know this character; we see her in travel literature all the time.

No reader, even one confused by Last Letters from Hav, would mistake Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago for a place on earth. The Dream Archipelago is the setting for many of Priest’s works, including 2011’s The Islanders, which presents itself as a kind of gazette. The introduction explains the geography of the planet, with large landmasses in the north and south and a belt of islands scattered across the tropical and temperate zones of its single ocean. This is followed by a series of short chapters, each about one of the islands. They are arranged in alphabetical order; each contains essential details about the island’s geographical peculiarities, its currency and its history. This seems comfortably factual, but we know from the beginning that things won’t be that easy. Chaster Kammeston, the supposed writer of this introduction, points out that the book simply cannot contain every island in the archipelago when experts cannot even be sure how many there are. There are also problems of islands with similar names and co-ordinates, of different forms of island patois that give the same name to different things (or different names to the same thing), so that it’s hard to be sure if one island is distinct from another.

Then too there are cartographical fictions that are made on purpose. We learn that the island of Tremm, off the south coast of Mequa, does not appear on any map. This island is a secret military base, and there’s no official record of its existence. Later we learn of the visual distortions caused by the planet’s winds, so that the aerial view of some places changes according to circumstances – an effect that calls every map into question. These details that undermine everything we can know about the islands are scattered across the book.

Most disconcerting of all are the hints that the book itself is not all it claims to be (and what sort of name for a gazette is The Islanders, anyway?). Kammeston, in the introduction, says that the book is well-meaning and “will do no harm”. Yet his introduction seems less and less likely as we read through the book and find that it implicates Kammeston himself in a murder, and later contains news of his death.

Though they both write travelogues of fictional places, Morris and Priest use very different strategies. Morris immerses us in the certainty of really knowing a place, then hits us with the revelation that our knowledge isn’t real. Priest adopts the most fact-centred of formats but undermines it constantly. Places cannot be known, both books suggest. All travel writing is a lie.


September 21, 2012

When life gives you Robinsons

As some of you may already know, I now have a monthly column in the new Indian edition of the National Geographic Traveller. It’s called “Paper Trails”, and in the three months that I’ve been writing for it I’ve managed to quote Derek Walcott, not quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, talk about the Chalet School and inform everyone that travel writing is a lie.

I’ll be putting all the columns up eventually. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of August’s piece on robinsonades and the amazing generosity of desert islands.



The first great shipwreck survivor in Western literature is Robinson Crusoe. In Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719, the seafaring protagonist finds himself stranded on a deserted island where, with the entire contents of his ship at his disposal, he manages to live for a number of years. The island provides him with goats to domesticate, fruits to eat, and even a native servant for company.

Robinson Crusoe seems to be the book that all future island-dwellers have read. A century later, in 1812, Johann Wyss’s Swiss family jokingly give themselves Crusoe’s name. The men who land on Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse in 1874, meanwhile, seem familiar with Wyss’ work, and mention the Robinsons’ habit of giving various parts of their island fanciful names. The island survival story would draw so much from Defoe’s pioneering novel, that in 1731 (only a little over a decade since Robinson Crusoe) the German writer Gisander named the genre the “robinsonade”.

Robinsonades generally involve people stranded in deserted places who must struggle against nature to survive. Often, the characters in these stories cultivate the land; many of them settle there for good and begin to populate it. All of this sounds as if the shipwreck story were a constant struggle between man and nature. Yet this is not always the case.

At the beginning of C.S Lewis’ Prince Caspian (first published in 1949), four children are magically transported to an island where there appears to be no other sign of life. At first, the children have no idea where they are. Though they realise that they might starve to death, the thought is quickly dismissed. “It’s like being shipwrecked,” remarks Edmund, the younger boy. “In the books, they always find springs of clear, fresh water on the island. We’d better go and look for them.” There is no need to worry; these characters are familiar enough with the robinsonade to know that nature will provide. In fact,far from islands being the site of an intense struggle between man and the environment, many books give the impression that they are among the most benevolent places in the world. To be cut off from human society seems more beneficial than not.

Take Wyss’ Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson). The island upon which the family find themselves stranded immediately provides them with safe harbour and giant trees for building in. Soon afterwards they will discover an astonishing and geographically improbable range of edible plants and animals. When they need shelter the island not only offers up caves but fills them with useful rock salt. So wonderful are the conditions of their exile that when the family are granted the opportunity to go home most of them choose not to avail of it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858) saw three teenaged boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. Decades later in 1954, William Golding would write a much less compassionate island book, Lord of the Flies, as a counter to Ballantyne’s novel. The three boys work together in what Golding seemed to think was improbable camaraderie for a group of teenagers cut off from civilisation. Again, the island provides everything they could possibly need – food (coconuts, fruits, fish and wild pigs), fibre from which to make clothes, and candlenuts to provide light. Over and over, the boys compare their island home to paradise, and when danger comes, as it does in the form of sharks, pirates and cannibals, it is always from across the sea. Here human civilisation, rather than nature, is the greatest source of savagery. Wyss and Ballantyne’s books are both steeped in Christianity, so there’s a sense not only of the island as unsullied Eden, but of man’s ownership over all of nature.

The Romans believed in the genius loci, a protective spirit that was associated with a particular place. The protagonists of Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse might well be forgiven for thinking that the islandin question had such a spirit, and one that had their interests at heart. On the surface, Verne’s novel seems more realistic about the difficulties of nature – here there are no convenient caves, and edible wildlife does not fall so readily into the palms of our heroes’ hands. More than most robinsonades, Verne centres the ingenuity of humans; his characters build a foundry and prepare blasting powder with the few resources at their disposal. Yet something seems to be protecting them, lighting fires to guide them home, killing dangerous animals and malevolent pirates, and even providing medicines and tobacco to those who need them. It’s almost disappointing when the reader learns that there is human agency behind all of this. But then, perhaps the provision of a benevolent protector is just another instance of the island’s bounty?

The first island many of my generation encountered in fiction was the one in Kirrin Bay, owned by George of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and first encountered in Five on a Treasure Island (1942). Kirrin Island has been the site of at least one shipwreck that we know of, but for the Five it is a place of refuge. The island has a convenient way of manifesting exactly what the plot needs at any particular time; when the family are in financial difficulties it produces lost treasure, when the children are hiding from kidnappers it has a hard-to-find cave. At a crucial moment it manifests a system of underwater passages that lead to the mainland. Blyton’s The Secret Island also has children fleeing the adult world for safety. The children escape an abusive aunt and uncle for an idyllic life on a hidden island.

Islands in these novels do pose the occasional danger. Wyss’s family encounter a boa constrictor, and Verne’s island is eventually destroyed in a rather spectacular volcano eruption. And yet, judging by what books have taught me, I’d feel safer on a desert island than in a lot of places.