In the dead of winter, the mind has a tendency to venture into warmer climes and imagine the adventures to be had there. But the holidays are over, and most of us face the daily grind through bleak grey days for weeks to come. What better way to escape than a good travel book?
A Traveller’s Year puts at one’s fingertips a cornucopia of travel writing, in small morsels. The book is made up of snippets of travellers’ journals and diaries from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. Use of the calendar day as an organising principle means that the book is full of serendipitous incongruities of time and place.
A 1992 account by Max Décharné of a man in an American bar asking for his Guinness to be microwaved is immediately followed by James Boswell’s 1773 tale of his journey to the Isle of Skye with a seasick Samuel Johnson.
George Orwell relates how in 1936 Wigan “nearly everyone seems very badly dressed and youths on corners markedly less smart and rowdy than in London”; in the following entry, Mungo Park recounts that on a 1796 African trip “the king, whose name was Daisy Koorabarri, was not to be distinguished from his subjects by any superiority in point of dress; a bank of earth, about two feet high, upon which was spread a leopard skin, constituted the only mark of royal dignity.”
There are between one and three entries – ranging from half a page to two pages in total – for each day of the year. Those who like their text in small quantities can savour the book for a full twelve months, reading each day’s entries at the relevant point in the calendar.
Yet it is easy to gobble up months at a time, mesmerised by the mish-mash of contemporary concerns about wifi to seventeenth-century tales of travellers dining on beaver tail, bear and camel meat.
The format of the books means one is never bored with tedious accounts of the duller moments, as the editing has been craftily performed by others.
Many of the authors are professional writers, together with painters, explorers, botanists, political leaders and tourists. Most are Anglophone, including Samuel Pepys, Captain James Cook, Mary Shelley, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris, Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Jack Kerouac, Alan Bennett and Bruce Chatwin. There is also a smattering of European and Indian writers such as Christopher Columbus, Michel de Montaigne, Simone de Beauvoir and Rajaram I, the Rajah of Kolhapoor.
The locales range from Easter Island (Jacob Roggeveen, 1722) to Brighton (which the Rajah of Bobbili likens to Bangalore) with all the continents in between.
One thing that strikes the modern reader is the arduousness of pre-modern journeys. Before the era of jet travel, voyages were truly exacting and the misery of travel is well documented in this volume. Writing in 1934, Wilfred Thesiger appears to take these dangers in his stride: “I have not seen any horse in Aussa, though I have seen some mules and donkeys. As I was going to bed I killed two tarantulas in my tent. Beastly things.”
The book also pulses with the wonder of foreign lands. Travelling in the US in 1846, Edwin Bryant marvels at the physical attributes of Native Americans: “Many of the women, for regularity of features and symmetry of figure, would bear off the palm of beauty from some of our most celebrated belles.
A portion of the Sioux women are decidedly beautiful.” In 1914 Ernest Shackleton describes Antarctic recreation: “We remained moored to a floe over the following day, the wind not having moderated; indeed it freshened to a gale in the afternoon, and the members of staff and crew took advantage of the pause to enjoy a vigorously contested game of football on the surface of the floe alongside the ship.”
And arriving in the Barbados in 1932, Evelyn Waugh finds welcome refreshment: “Dropped anchor about 7 and went ashore to the Aquatic club to bathe and drink rum swizzles. Returned to ship for breakfast and later went ashore to Bridgetown.”
This hardback volume is handsomely produced and includes a selection of vintage photographs that add considerably to the magic of the writing. Simone de Beauvoir tells of “becoming a different me” in New York, and with this delightful book, we can all share in the transformative powers of travel, a bit at a time.
A Traveller’s Year: 365 Days of Travel Writing in Diaries, Journals and Letters is compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison and published by Frances Lincoln Ltd. RRP: £25. ISBN: 9780711236080