Saturday, 30 September 2017

A glass of Chardonnay can make everything better

Worst Journeys: The Picador Book Of Travel Worst Journeys contains 55 stories by some of literature’s best travel writers, primarily in prose form. They relate all sorts of hellish situations, from the banality of dislikable traveling companions, to exceptional, near death experiences. It was a pleasure to discover writers who have had similar experiences to me, and a relief that I have not had the misfortune of some of the more adventurous.

Jan Morris is the optimistic traveler that I should like to be. No matter how grim the experience, she finds no excuse for self-pity, and there is no mishap, however grave, that cannot be accommodated with a glass of Chardonnay.

I've so far been lucky enough not to be robbed while traveling, unlike Stephen Brook. He describes how his ignorance led him to check in to a whorehouse masquerading as a motel, and the consequent theft of all his belongings. It was easy to sympathize with his British sense of outrage in the face of American criminal activity and laid-back policing.

A collection of essays on the effects of war provided the most appalling travel experiences. P.J. O’Rourke visited Northern Ireland in 1988 and witnessed an “acceptable level of violence.” Gavin Young revisited HuĂ© in Vietnam in 1968 and discovered how friends coped with US bombing, day and night over 14 days. Bruce Chatwin got caught up in a coup in Benin, was arrested, accused of being a mercenary and faced execution.

But it’s not all harrowing. Al Purdy’s poem recounting an episode in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago when he had to do in rocky terrain what bears do in the woods, left me yelping with laughter.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

How terribly interesting little things are

Queen Lucia EF Benson's book follows the life of the quiet village of Riseholme, where "nothing ever happens." Mrs Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) is self-appointed queen, ruling the villagers in matters of culture and entertainment.

Lucia is a snob. She professes to speak Italian, although in truth only a few words, her superior knowledge of music is accepted on the basis of her ability to play only the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and she imposes her taste by disdaining the gramophone and new composers such as Debussy. With her right-hand-man Georgie she ensures that she is the leading light in the cultural and social life of the village. But revolution brews in Riseholme with the arrival of opera singer Olga Bracely.

EF Benson relates the story from no specific character's point of view, which allows the reader to know everyone's thoughts. For me this produced a delicious anticipation as to how each one would handle embarrassing and humiliating situations. The cast are so well written that I couldn't help but care about them in the face of their trifling problems. I felt sad for Georgie and I despaired over Daisy Quantock's unquestioning acceptance of self-improvement fads. There was also a point at which I wanted Lucia to be deposed, such was her nasty interpretation of other characters' actions.

To be sure, nothing much happens in the story, but on reaching the end I realised, "how terribly interesting little things were."