Autobiography – Sylvia Beach

In which we are intellectual, possibly.

I found Sylvia Beach’s autobiography (in the Faber&Faber 1st ed.) at a second-hand bookshop last Saturday, so that’s been my main read this week. In case you don’t know who SB is, I’ll enlighten you. She was an American who came over to Paris after WW1 and sort of never left. She started a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company, to provide the French with a place to get hold of contemporary writing in English and to provide a similar service to the English-speaking writers in more or less voluntary exile in Paris at the time – the so-called «Lost Generation», Joyce, Pund, Hemingway and so on. In the process she also managed to publish Joyce’s «unpublishable» Ulysses (it was banned in the States and the UK already, due to some excerpts that had been published in literary magazines), and as such should get a posthumous medal for outstanding services to humanity.

The book is very interesting in its first half, which is properly autobiographical. Unfortunately, by about half-way through it turns into something so much like pure name-dropping that it gets excessively repetitive. The bookshop was the meeting point for so many intellectuals in Paris at the time, and in order to not leave anyone out, SB gives 1-3 pages to each person, which leaves room for little more than a variation on «X is a very good writer/painter/composer and I very much enjoyed his/her work NN. He/she first came to the shop in 19?? and we went to lunch at such’n’such with Y, Z and Joyce.»

To counter all this intellectualism, I spent a couple of very childish hours rereading the five Ole Alexander books by Norwegian children’s book writer Anne-Cath. Vestly. I haven’t read them since I was a kid, in fact, I don’t suppose I’ve ever actually read them, I probably had them read to me. I also remember occasionally listening in when my parents read them to my brother, who would have been 4-ish, so I’d have been 11-ish. Anyway, they made an excellent movie from the first two books about two years ago, and I’ve been eying the books on the shelf occasinally and thinking I’d reread them. So I did. They’re still brilliant, though a mite too much directed at four- to five-year-olds even for me.

Breakfast in Brighton – Nigel Richardson

In which we go rambling.

I finished The Road to McCarthy last week. A somewhat more rambling account than the author’s previous book (McCarthy’s Bar), but none the worse for that. Not the sort of book I would advise for reading on the bus if you are at all shy about people staring, it is frequently laugh out loud funny.

I then picked up a book I found in a charity shop in Glasgow, Breakfast in Brighton, by Nigel Richardson (or Nicholas, whichever amazon entry you believe – very strange that). In rambling terms it gave Pete McCarthy a run for his money. I’m still not entirely sure what the book was all about. However, it was a very pleasant read. A little knowledge of Brighton and Sussex may be an advantage, but I suspect the book is quite as enjoyable if you’ve never been anywhere near the place.

I’m obviously into writing long and profound analyses of books at the moment…

«Pleasant read». Hmph.

The Prisoner of Zenda – Anthony Hope

In which we buckle our swash.

I’ve been listening to The Prisoner of Zenda getting to and from work this week. Very entertaining, and a good sort of book for listening to in a place where you may get distracted. Partly because there is nothing terribly complicated going on, but mostly because it’s so engaging that you’re less prone to distractions than you migh be with a slower-moving book. The latter is a bit of a nuisance when going to work, I have been hovering outside the door a couple of mornings, unwilling to step through and back to reality and wait hours and hours to see what happens next. But you can’t have everything.

(The Penguin edition available at amazon seems to have a sequel in the same book. Stupidly, I scrolled down to the reviews where someone, even more stupidly, gives the sequel’s plot away. Oh, well. Consider yourself warned. For my part, I still want to see if I the library might have it.)

Notes and natives

brysonIn which we look for travelling companions.

Following Faintheart, I succumbed and reread Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, despite the fact that very little of it concerns Scotland (Scotland being the topic I’m supposed to be covering). It really is an excellent book. I think one of the reasons I like Bryson som much is that he’s as batty about Britain as I am. And in precisely the same way, too. We may complain about the plumbing (or ask «What plumbing? You mean they have plumbing?») and we may be bewildered by bus queues and picnics on the beach in a gale, but we love even the plumbing and the queues and the picnics, simply because Britain wouldn’t be Britain without them. (Cue the librarian walking into a B&B and exclaiming with delight: «Look! Separate taps for hot and cold water!» though if someone suggested she install such a system at home she’d be horrified, naturally, just think of the impracticality!) Which doesn’t mean that Bryson likes every place he visits, and it certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t say some pretty cutting (though mainly quite funny) things about people and places, but at least you get the feeling that, on the whole, he actually likes travelling. What a nice change from Mr. Jennings.

I then ventured on Native Stranger, my other haul from amazon. This one is written by a Scot (his name, in fact, is Alastair Scott), and is as much an examination of how history has affected the Scottish mind and the Scottish landscape as it is about travelling, as such. I learnt a lot. On the whole, a very interesting account, but again, I found something lacking. I have no reason to think that Scott did not enjoy his trek, he seems interested in the people and places he meets, but the contrast to Bryson is there: he doesn’t convey any enthusiasm to the reader. Bryson can make me want to go places I had never even contemplated before. Having read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, only a strong dose of self-discipline kept me from packing my bags set off to walk the Appalachian trail just as soon as I could find a travel agency willing to sell me an airplane ticket. In fact, I was this close to just up and walking there, I was in Detroit at the time and it seemed like the experience would be worth a walk across a couple of states…

So I guess maybe that’s what I am missing. I am missing the ability in the author to make me sigh «I wish I were there too!» Not, like Jennings, «I wish I were there instead!» I want the author to give me the impression that I would like him/her as a travelling companion, and I guess a measure of enthusiasm is one of my prerequisites for travelling companions. And with that in mind, statements like these put me off:

«Lunchtime would se me turn Viking, invading a grocer and pillaging milk, pies, cheese, bananas and Mars Bars; and stocking up with Cup a soups, tuna and spaghetti for the evening. My diet seldom varied. Since I began travelling the taste of food has ceased to have much importance and my tolerance for monotony usually lasts a journey.»

Fine, so food isn’t the be-all and end-all (at least, interesting food isn’t) of life in general or travelling in particular, but one of the joys of travelling is to sit down to a good meal at the end of the day, with a good companion (a person or a book, I don’t mind either way). Or to have a picnic consisting of slightly dry bread and flat fizzy water on a cliff in a downpour. The food doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be part of the experience. I don’t know. Somehow, that one comment about food set the mood of the whole book for me. I never got in tune with the author after that.

Still, as a grounding in Scottish history and modern sensibilities it was a good read, not to be sneezed at.

Bill Bryson, if you ever read this (I don’t know why you should, but if you do), please, please, please write a ‘Notes from a Small Island 2’, and spend a little more time in Scotland and a little more in Wales.

Faintheart – Charles Jennings

faintheartIn which we advise the author to stay at home next time.

I finally got hold of a couple of travelogues of Scotland of the sort I was looking for – thanks, yet again, to amazon – and started Charles Jennings’ Faintheart on my way to Stryn last week. It’s pretty entertaining, but still, I am far from satisfied.

It’s very funny in parts, his description of sheep, for example: «a sheep wandering across the road looks somewhere between a big dirty hairy dog and a maggot on stilts». He also made me want to visit the Glasgow Necropolis, a «non-denominational ‘hygenic’ graveyard» in Glasgow like Pere Lachaise in Paris. So what’s the problem?

Well, the exact problem is a bit hard to nail down, but I get the feeling that it is all slightly pointless, somehow. It’s not so much that he doesn’t have a «purpose», like, I don’t know, travelling around the coast of Britain counter-clockwise, and that this makes him move around in a rather unstructured way. I have no quarrels with a little well-applied randomness. And it’s not that he doesn’t have a specific purpose for going to Scotland, like, I don’t know, drinking a measure of scotch in every pub called Mac-something, either. You shouldn’t need a purpose to travel anywhere. It’s more that he gives the impression that the only reason he’s in Scotland in the first place is that he’s decided to write A Travel Book, and then picked a piece of paper with «Scotland» on it out of a hat. He doesn’t seem to want to be there. That’s it. Much of the time he really seems like he would much rather be somewhere else. Like back in the office London. What sort of idiot would rather be back in an office in London than travelling around in Scotland, even if it’s raining? And if he would really rather not be there, why doesn’t he just go home? Find another country to write a travelogue from? Write a completely different sort of book? Why can’t I be in Scotland instead of this embittered and whiny journalist? And if he actually does want to be there, and is enjoying himself, why does he keep giving the impression that he is constantly disappointed and/or depressed?

Another thing that left me unsatisfied is that there is virtually no contact with people. If you read the bit about Two Feet, Four Paws, you’ll remember that I chastisised myself for being unreasonable in craving contact with people in Spud’s case. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect just a little human intereaction from Jennings, though. After all, he spends most of his time in pretty populated places. He goes to several pubs, for example (though he finds most of them dismal – why doesn’t he move on? Don’t tell me there are no nice pubs in Scotland, because I won’t believe you), and we are treated to some delighful conversations – but they are conversations he overhears, he never dares involve himself at all.

Still, I like the bit about the sheep.

Kingdom by the Sea – Paul Theroux

therouxIn which we sigh deeply.

Well, I read the chapters on Scotland in Paul Theroux’s Kingdom by the Sea. I would have read the whole thing, except when I went to get it from the shelf I was of the impression that I had read maybe the first couple of chapters, and then I found my bookmark (receipt for lunch at the Red Lion in Arundel) more than half the way through. So I figured if it was no more memorable than that then I certainly couldn’t be bothered to read more than the pertinent 3 or 4 chapters.

This book is celebrated as a «classic» in travel literature. The blurb on my copy calls it: «His candid and compulsive account of a journey round the coast of Great Britain.» Well, I obviuosly didn’t find it compulsive the last time I tried it, and I can’t say it has improved on me much. And is he candid? They’re not asking much, are they? Ok, so he says «I came to hate Aberdeen more than any place I saw» and calls it «an awful city». I dunno, maybe he was the first one to do this sort of thing (were travel writers embarrassingly positive about everything they saw before Theroux?), and maybe he’s just lost some oumph in comparison with his contemporary colleagues?

Still searching for that elusive travelogue from Scotland that will really make me feel that I want to be where the author is, eat in the cafe he/she eats in, scale the same mountain. Theroux was not it.

Two Feet, Four Paws, walking the dog 4,500 miles – Spud Talbot-Ponsonby

twofeetIn which we walk and then walk some more.

I’ve just finished Spud’s book (Spud Talbot-Ponsonby being a bit more of a mouthful, and I’ve been on first-name basis with her throughout the book) – Two Feet, Four Paws, walking the dog 4,500 miles. Though very enjoyable, and definitely recommended, it left something to be wished as a travel journal. It’s not Spud’s fault, really (nor is it Tess’, the dear thing), in a way it’s mostly my fault, as I was looking for quite a different sort of book when I picked this up.

The story is, of necessity, a bit «rushed». Covering ten months’ walking in a overcomable number of pages is bound to leave the reader feeling out of breath, we are never allowed the time to linger for much more than a paragraph before being hurried on a few more miles along the coast. To me, this was equally unsatisfying for the places I knew nothing about, but wanted more information on, such as the Scottish towns that I will have the chance to see in September, and the places I know fleetingly or intimately from having been there myself; Blackpool, Llandudno, Aberystwyth, St. David’s (which would be pure bliss if there was just one pub with decent food), Carmarthen, Swansea, Burnham-on-Sea, St. Ives, Mousehole, Penzance (Janne and I walked the stretch from Penzance to Mousehole in the driving rain at New Year), Falmouth (where we anchored the yacht for the night and I was nearly drowned by rain – again), not to mention the stretch from Rustington to Shoreham-by-Sea, where I’ve walked and cycled so much I no longer know which bits I haven’t covered, and finally Hove and Brighton (with the delapidated West Pier, which in many ways is better worth a roll of film than it’s neighbour which is still going strong) – they all passed in a blur, and I wanted to grab Spud’s sleave and make her slow – if not her steps, then at least her narration.

On the other hand, just reading about walking made me want to walk. Solvitur ambulando, it is solved by walking, is a phrase Spud repeats, and how well do I know what she means. And if you can walk with the sea on your left (or right, frankly, I don’t care which), then so much the better.

As a guide to Scotland, of course, it wasn’t much good, but then it’s a bit unfair to expect that just because that was what I was originally looking for when I went to the bookstore. It’s like picking up War and Peace and expecting to find Dorothy Parker (or vice versa). Another thing I, quite unreasonably, missed was contact with people. The thing that makes travel literature come to life for me is anecdotes of «meeting the natives», in a book about a girl and a dog walking a largely solitary coastline is unlikely to produce much of that (though what little there was was worth reading the rest of the book for, even had it not been worth it for other reasons).