Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Armchair Traveller.

Some months ago I published on here a poem about my father, who I said was very much an Armchair Gardener. All Winter he would read gardening books and plan his garden; come Summer the garden would stay as it was.

I have come to the conclusion that to some extent I am an Armchair Traveller. Oh yes, I love my holidays abroad and over the years have been to some exciting places = Samarkand, Bukhara, Vladivostok, Istanbul, Beijing, Mongolia - and I have loved them all. But, dare I say, once I get home and have written up my diary of the holiday and put photographs in it, I get almost as much pleasure from reading about it frpm the comfort of my armchair. On a wet Sunday afternoon in mid-Winter, the farmer and I can enjoy a half hour tour of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, wander round the farm that inspired Anne of Green Gables, remember fish and chips on the wharf in Halifax - and all without leaving the log fire!

But for real vicarious pleasure I do love reading of the travels of those intrepid travellers of the 1920's and 30's. Gosh, they don't make 'em like that any more, do they? I am thinking of Freya Stark, Lawrence of Arabia, Wilfred Thesiger, Vita Sackville-West. Reading about them almost makes me wish I had lived in that era. But then of course, with hindsight, the period was followed by the Spanish Civil War, the fight against Fascism, the Second World War, the persecution of the Jews - a terrible time was to follow. So maybe I am better getting my pleasure by the fireside. Not that I have any choice in the matter, anyway.

My son, who knows my taste in books to perfection, found a little book in a second hand book shop in Wales last week and bought it for me. I am enthralled and cannot put it down. In the mid 1920's Sackville-West amd her diplomat husband, Harold Nicholson followed an old caravan trail through the Bakhtiari mountains in South Western Persia (Iran). Of course, although they travelled mostly on foot or on mule, they had an enormous retinue of servants going on ahead to set up camp and so forth. The journey was pretty dangerous - there were plenty of what she calls thieves and vagabonds about - but they had a letter, which they brandished whenever trouble arose. The letter, from an important personage in the Persian Government, ended with the words, "If you do not show every courtesy and grant every facility to the above-mentioned noble persons, it will be extremely bad for you."

Her writing is perfection. Just read this little snippet. They were staying in a village house overnight - "We were aroused by a knocking on the door and the voice of our host: "The dawn has come and the sun is rising." They rise and throw open the shutters - and she says, " Below us the ravine lay, still in shadow, rising on the opposite side to the level of the plain. The plain stretched away dark and wide to a range of jagged hills on the horizon. The sun had not yet appeared, but the whole east was lambent with his near presence; the hills stood up, sombre shapes, against a saffron heaven, bruised and streaked with narrow, purple clouds. A camel caravan was just going out of the village; we could see the long, swaying string and hear the grave, deep note of their bells. This was the immemorial beauty of Persia, framed for us in a square opening. Imperceptibly the sky grew more luminous......." Magic stuff. For a moment I am there (and without all the vicissitudes of such a journey).

I do urge you to keep an eye open for this little book. It was first published in 1928. My book was published in 1987 by Michael Haag Limited.


Golden West said...

Ah, a new word for me - lambent - just looked it up and it's a keeper, for sure. That was a lovely passage, weaver, thanks for sharing.

jeanette from everton terrace said...

The words are like honey, the descriptions transportive. How I wish my thoughts could be expressed like that. Wonderful gift.

Heather said...

What a little treasure that book is and what beautiful language. I am not at all intrepid but could probably manage a trip or two with Vita Sackville-West's retinue of servants. She may have faced a few dangers but at least she didn't have to wait around for 2 or 3 hours in airports before setting off.

Amy said...

I enjoy reading your blog but I usually don't comment unless I have something to contribute. This post resonated so I thought I'd tell you about another Sackville-West edition to look for: "Passenger to Tehran" (I have the 1990 edition - Moyer Bell NY).

Since I, too, am an avid armchair traveler, another to consider is "Without Reservations" by Alice Steinbach; you'd be going to London, Paris and Rome on that trip!

A friend also told me about Gertrude Bell (another Middle East traveler long before women did that sort of thing!). I haven't looked her up yet, but apparently that's a good travel read as well.

George said...

An interesting post, Pat, and an interesting book doubt Vita Sackville-West's travels. I love real travel as well as armchair travel. The key is to be transported beyond one's zone of familiarity.

George said...

An interesting post, Pat, and an interesting book doubt Vita Sackville-West's travels. I love real travel as well as armchair travel. The key is to be transported beyond one's zone of familiarity.

BT said...

What a wonderful description. When one thinks of Iran, it's war that springs to mind and dust. It made me think again about what is clearly a wonderful country.

Pondside said...

What a lovely recommendation.
I too like travel books - I have one about women travelers in the west in the late 19th century. Now they were adventurers!

Bovey Belle said...

Another armchair traveller here. I am easily transported on the words of others and I agree, this is a book to look out for (yet another to add to the list!!)

You would LOVE "A Scandalous Life" by Mary S Lovell - a biography of Lady Jane Digby who was, shall we say, VERY unconventional for her time and ended up - after several husbands and lovers - the wife of a Bedouin Sheikh . . .

steven said...

that's a beautiful painterly header! i too travel vicariously through the writing of - among others - vita! steven

The Weaver of Grass said...

GW - Yes, I thought what a lovely word lambent was, too.

Jeanette - I have always admired her writing - she is one of my favourites.

Heather - well said! In those days travel was a completely different kettle of fish to nowadays.

Amy - thank you for the comments - I shall look out for those books.

George - Zone of familiarity - I like that.

Gina - yes I know what you mean about Iran and war - all so very sad.

Pondside - I always keep meaning to look for books about those intrepid travellers to the West. My goodness, they had it hard.

Bovey Belle - Thanks I shall look for the Lovell book, sounds interesting.

Steven - thanks. Glad you like Vita too.

thousandflower said...

I just put an interlibrary loan request in for this book.