Nourished by Travel – or not

Chambers, Thomas, active 1849-1859; A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers

(Thomas Chambers, A Burning Town by Moonlight with Travellers: York Art Gallery
© York Museums Trust)

Reading, on and off, Somerset Maugham’s short stories, I remembered Anthony Burgess, a great admirer of Maugham, writing that: ‘The form fitted a talent that was wide rather than deep, not (as with James) going over the same ground again and again till its possibilities were exhausted, but best nourished by travel, brief encounters with many human types, an anecdote swiftly jotted down between rubbers of bridge, a newspaper report, “brunch” with a planter in Burma, a whisky suku in a Malayan club.’[1]

‘Nourished by travel’, yes, though it’s often said that, in a great many cases, travel narrows the mind. Most obviously nourished are the travel companies, the airlines—and, as becomes daily more obvious, the spread of infectious diseases. But the number of those who feel less positive towards the industry is surely growing, now that even the thickest skull and skin must have been penetrated by some shaft of understanding that every journey by air—and, though less, by road and rail too—is another nail in the coffin of this abused planet.

There’s a moment in Jenny Offill’s new novel:
‘Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
‘Old person worry: What if everything I do does?’[2]

Like the destructive effects of smoking, denied, concealed or spun away for years, the facts now sit like giant stones on the road to the airport.

In 1950, apparently, the English travelled an average of five miles a day; in 2000, it was more like thirty miles.[3] The Librarian and I now travel, and plan to travel, far less; and less far, mainly because we don’t want to fly – besides, the cat takes a dim view of prolonged absences. On cats and travel: Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin (29 July 1995) about an inquiry from Laughlin’s wife: ‘Gertrude’s question—how do I know all the things I know—is a good one in that it lets several cats out of the bag at once. If she means history and geographical detail, the answer is books, travel, and stealing. If she means psychology and the behavior of people, I make it up.’[4]

One of the main divisions among travellers seems to have been the matter of purpose; more specifically, is there one? Sometimes, it’s a personal trait or tic: Colette wrote in Chance Acquaintances of ‘the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.’[5]

Colette-and-cat

(Colette and cat: via The Guardian)

‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go’, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in a famous passage. ‘The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’[6] So too, in Angela Carter’s post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, she writes: ‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[7]

Samuel Johnson certainly defined a purpose: ‘The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.—All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.’[8] Elsewhere, the opening of The Vanity of Human Wishes proposed surveying mankind on a broader scope, ‘from China to Peru’.

A more personal object was voiced by Edward Leithen, central to half a dozen of John Buchan’s novels, who remarks that: ‘All my life I have cherished certain pictures of landscape, of which I have caught glimpses in my travels, as broken hints of a beauty of which I hoped some day to find the archetype.’[9]

The brutal fact is that millions of affluent people fondly believe that they have a perfect right to drive wherever and whenever they like, and to fly wherever and whenever they like, and that exercising such perceived rights concerns nobody else and affects nobody else. The truth is otherwise. Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote: ‘I have travelled a good deal in Concord’.[10]

A few more of us may need to cultivate the ability—and the desire—to study, learn and feel, let’s say, nourished by our own locality, our own small corner of the world.

 
Notes

[1] Anthony Burgess, ‘Bitter-sweet Savour’ (1965), in The Ink Trade, edited by Will Carr (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2018), 23-24.

[2] Jenny Offill, Weather (London: Granta, 2020), 21-22.

[3] Madeleine Bunting, The Plot: A Biography of an English Acre (London: Granta 2009),  91.

[4] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 205.

[5] Colette, Chance Acquaintances & Julie de Carneilhan (translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor; Harmondsworth; Penguin Books, 1957), 168.

[6] Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 163.

[7] Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: Picador, 1972), 107.

[8] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 742.

[9] John Buchan, The Dancing Floor (1926; edited by Marilyn Deegan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115-116.

[10] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

 

Transports of Delight

Bus-376

On the way to Wells, I’m reminded of the bus ride we took on the Jurassic Coast service from Chideock to Lyme Regis last month. I ride on buses so rarely these days, mostly walking, occasionally driving, so had almost forgotten just how different the world looks from the upper deck of a bus. Simply, you see more, partly because of the slower speed but largely because of the height – and the frequency with which you stop, not only at traffic lights, in a queue of cars, but at bus stops, pulled tightly in to the side of the road, next to garden fences, house fronts, road signs, shops and cafés, peering into people’s lives in a way you can’t from a car or even a train. So, on the section of road I’d driven on scores of times, between Bristol and Yeovil, I’d noticed Featherbed Lane but had missed Sleep Lane and, worse, Gibbet Lane too. Passing the point where we used to gauge our progress by the first glimpse of the single wind turbine, in the weeks when we drove often to Glastonbury to see my mother in the hospital, I realised a bus top view made it visible for longer and from varying angles. Seeing a truncated version of it complicated my sense of its movement, so that it came to seem not unlike an acrobat tirelessly performing cartwheels.

So, four recent bus journeys. In every case, a failure to sit in the very front seats because these are always the first to be taken. But my clearest memory of a bus ride is precisely of sitting in that front seat and going, a little too fast, over a humpbacked bridge near Bath, so that I was facing vertiginously downwards for an abrupt, disorientating moment, my breath forced jerkily from my nose and mouth. J. R. Ackerley recalled visiting his sister Nancy in Worthing and going into one of the seaside cafés to order a cup of coffee that they didn’t need to drink. There they ‘talked of this and that – the gale that had raged on the south coast on Friday and Saturday and blown a bus full of people over a bridge’.[1] In my case, it wasn’t a gale, just a driver that had mistaken his route for Silverstone or Brands Hatch.

Ackerley_Aunt_EMF

(J. R. Ackerley with his aunt and E. M. Forster)

In those far-off days, I’d been working on a novel and that momentary, violent loss of control, of helplessness in the face of whatever happened next (and that vivid presentiment of the bus not righting itself but continuing to tip forward), the sense of ‘Too late now!’, like realising as the train pulls away from the station that you left the gas on, gave me a title: A Sense of Omission. Safely unpublished, of course. I see that even that far back, I loved a pun.

Tony Judt has the bus in equal second place: ‘I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.’[2] Today, after finding that the Prime Minister had found herself in a very hostile environment, I set off to collect an undelivered parcel from what seemed at times to be a galaxy far, far away, though I’d travelled there on foot. So the bus is in equal second place for me too: first place still goes to walking: stop whenever you want to, no traffic jams, fix your own timetable. Take back control, as they say.

 
References

[1] J. R. Ackerley, My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley, edited by Francis King (London: Hutchinson 1982), 69.

[2] Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet (London: Heinemann, 2010), 66.

 

Bees, tea towels, staying at home

tolpuddle-martyrs

With a new tea towel to prompt me, I should at least finally commit to memory the names of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It was a part of, let’s call it, a bulk purchase of Radical Tea Towels, made by the Librarian on our recent trip to Manchester.

https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/

With limited time at our disposal, we hared off to the People’s History Museum – or intended to. Twenty-minute walk, my note said. Perhaps, if you’re a champion athlete, know the city like the back of your hand and don’t start off by coming out on the wrong side of Manchester Piccadilly station. After fifteen minutes, we made our way back to where we’d begun and climbed into a taxi.

Match-Girls

We might have stayed the night in Manchester had the Librarian not already been committed to a professional trip to London and Oxford the next day. So we arrived back in Bristol around midnight in order that, on Finland’s National Sleepy Head Day, I might roll out of bed at five o’clock, an hour earlier than usual.

Suffragette-Teatowel

’We went to Europe’, Flannery O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in 1958, ‘and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life.’ Yes. I recalled the painter Hurtle Duffield’s initial reaction as his Greek lover persuades him onto a flying boat for the first leg of their journey, in Patrick White’s The Vivisector: ‘In the air he huddled in his overcoat and longed for his abandoned house; nobody would coax him out of it again. In any case after childhood, or at most, youth, experience breeds more fruitfully in a room.’

We are home now, anyway, in the resurgent hot weather. The bees are entranced by African blue basil, lavender, roses and Skylover. The gabbiest magpie of the four regulars perches on the fence and sounds off. The neighbour’s cat is still digesting the news that the recent arrivals in the house beyond our back wall have rabbits in a hutch by their kitchen door. We, in turn, are digesting the news that, after several years of quiet, those recent arrivals subscribe to the new twenty-first century conventions: make as much noise as you can. Still, the hot weather will pass; windows will close; the novelty of careering loudly around a shared house and garden will wear off.

Birds

So we are left with the recent news items which have—certainly not comforted but, perhaps, diverted—such as Government ministers drawing up plans to investigate whether the government’s own policies are to blame for the sharp rise in the use of food banks.
https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/aug/01/revealed-ministers-plan-to-research-effect-of-policies-on-food-bank-use

Could they possibly be connected? As has already been pointed out several times, this is something of an ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ query. I remember thinking the same thing when, two or three months ago, after the deaths of many unarmed protesters, there was a headline on the BBC website: ‘Did Israel use excessive force at Gaza protests?’

And one which has caused extreme discomfort: the assault on Bookmarks, the Bloomsbury Street shop.
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/aug/05/far-right-protesters-ransack-socialist-bookshop-bookmarks-in-london

There have been a good many recent attempts to suggest that we are seeing a rerun of the 1930s and, usually, I find the differences far outweigh the similarities. But masked thugs attacking a radical bookshop? That brings us a little closer, I think.

Camping, decamping

Yurt-setting

We drive. We are on, hmm, a short camping trip. Staying in a yurt. In the border country. But did I actually shut the freezer door properly? I only ask because we’ve been woken by the alarm twice before now; and also because we’re now approaching the Second Severn Crossing and it’s too late to do anything about it. Once over the bridge, the motorway traffic stalls and crawls. Flashing signals urge us to keep our speed down to 40, just as the speedometer limps up to 15. Heat. Are my legs swelling as they seemed to the other day? Heat-related oedema, the Librarian explained then, helpfully. I am feeling claustrophobic even in dense traffic these days.

But then, I say (as three army lorries in succession pass us in the slow lane), what’s the worst that can happen if the freezer door isn’t shut? Water all over the kitchen floor and some food ruined? Unless the fridge overheats and explodes, the Librarian suggests. Yes, I agree, unless that.

Still, when we turn off at Junction 24, things ease. Past Abergavenny and heading for Hereford. Along narrow lanes, up agonising tracks. The directions are ambiguous and, once parked, we carefully head off to the wrong corner of the field, staggering under the weight of several bags. We stare at the directions again, peer into dazzling distances, up and down slopes, plunge into clumps of trees and we’re finally there.

It would suit some people very well. It clearly has done: some posted reviews are fulsome, verging on ecstatic. We walk up the field again to get some icepacks from a communal fridge. Back at the yurt, we walk around, go outside, locate the view. Our last holiday deluged us with light and space and air. Here, I feel hemmed in, short of both light and space. There’s a view but it’s round the corner, so to speak.

Yurt-1

This was to be a mini-break for reading and relaxation, simply that: and to exorcize the Librarian’s long-established yurt yearnings. We walk around again, look outside, look at each other. Three questions, I say, four really, if we count the possible freezer door problem. One, could you relax here? Two, could you settle down to read here? Three, would any of the food that we’ve carefully transported here last even until tomorrow morning without turning into something else? The Librarian considers this carefully for almost a second. No. No. And no.

No need to repack bags that were not disturbed. Two trips back up to the car, staggering even more obviously now, as muscles sag and the heat takes its toll. We drive. Only a single navigational hiccup finds us on an unintended road to Chepstow. One signpost mentions fourteen miles but that’s a clearly a joke or local legend. But we do finally emerge at a junction where the caption BRISTOL 17 MILES eases away all tensions and dark suspicions. We drive.

At home, we return the food and drink to fridge and freezer. The plants are already watered, tomorrow’s recycling already outside on the pavement. There is little to do but raise our glasses: ‘Chepstow!’

The freezer door was, of course, firmly closed.