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Country Life Christmas travel supplement
Christmas 2010

True Travelling Companions

You can tell a traveller by the company they keep – and this has nothing to do with such vexed questions as suitcase versus backpack, or panama hat versus baseball cap. I am talking about that relationship with the right book read on the right journey - which will open your eyes, ears and imagination. We are not referring to guidebooks or to glossy surveys of art, history and architecture, but to those humble paperback friends that get squashed into a coat pocket and read compulsively, in railway stations, at the café table and after a picnic beside a crumbling castle. You can tell their power by the contented but far away look on the face of the traveller, as if distant horizons are being scanned and recognized to be true.

I stumbled on my first true travelling companion by chance. I had gone to visit two of the great cognoscenti of Oriental travel, who had both waxed lyrical about the enduring mystery and endless fascination of Istanbul. Later, I was surprised to find that my scribbled notes from these two meetings had left me with two completely different lists of ‘must see’. For the historian John Julius Norwich had concentrated on the relics of Byzantium, whilst the art-historian Willie Mostyn-Owen had set up an Ottoman trail. The one thing these two experts had emphatically agreed upon however, was the title of a book, an unpromising sounding family memoir, called Portrait of a Turkish Family, written by an exiled Turk in London.

For while the guidebook led towards the remains of the great palaces and palaces of worship built by Emperors and Sultans, this paperback memoir sung a very different song. It followed the life of an ordinary Turkish family as it weathered the painful destruction of the old Ottoman Empire and learned to adjust to the realities of the new national Republic. Portrait of a Turkish Family is also beautifully written, treading that delicate boundary between intimate and resolute. Although it chronicles the adventures of just one family, it can also be read as a metaphor for the transformation of a whole nation. This experience of reading the right book, in the right place at the right time, was such an inspiration, that it inspired an enduring love affair with the city, and over the subsequent decades I found myself, not only writing two separate guidebooks and returning to Istanbul year after year, sometimes alone, sometimes leading a tour, or like a pied piper, leading half a dozen blonde children (a muddle of daughters and their cousins) through favourite souks and alleys. Many years later I would set up a publishing company with my wife (herself a Russian traveller) to reprint any such similar books that we could find. They are rare but worth the search.

Gavin Maxwell is better known by the general public as a naturalist and for the series of otter books set in the West Coast of Scotland. He was also a soldier, a freelance spy, a poet, a painter and a travel writer of genius. Lords of the Atlas is not the familiar yarn of a white man travelling across the ‘unknown hostile territory’ of North Africa and proving his bravery and worth to the reader across every other page. Indeed it is quite the reverse, for Gavin Maxwell had so immersed himself in the telling of this Moroccan story that he virtually disappears as a narrator, leaving you only with the spell-binding tale of how three generations of Berber chieftains rose to a virtual kingship of the Desert south. To put it into a British perspective, it is as if a clan of Gaelic speaking Highland lairds had decided to throw in their lot with a foreign power in 1912 and then proceeded to create a Quisling-like Viceroyalty of the West that stretched over Scotland, Wales and Ireland. This state within the Moroccan state, which was garrisoned and controlled by a chain of castle-palaces came crashing to the ground in 1956, when the French ceded Independence back to Morocco. I have been to their ruined Kasbah of Telouet perched in a high cleft of the High Atlas mountains many times, but never once have I failed to spot a fellow British victim of Gavin Maxwell’s spell binding prose, clutching their own copy of the Lords of the Atlas. He was also a descendant of the Percy border lords (through his beloved mother) and so instinctively had sympathy for those who are forced to survive through their wits on the frontiers of nation states.

But what would I give an Occidentalist traveller coming on their first trip to England? What book could amuse but also provide advance warning about our manners, classes and rituals, let alone our food. Should it be a P.G.Wodehouse, a Trollope, a Jane Austen or an Evelyn Waugh? I would put my money behind a Dickens, especially if you could first take your guest to an English shore washed by sea mist and the odours of a tidal marsh, somewhere like the Pinmill pub on the Suffolk coast and there a pop a copy of Great Expectations in their coat pocket.

Here are twenty suggestions of what you might pop in the deep pocket of your travelling jacket.

  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garvia Marquez – this novel is almost certainly set in Colombia, but would also be an equally powerful read in Venezuela.
  • Out of Africa, Karen Blixen -one of the many powerful memoirs created by the white tribe of East Africa
  • Portrait of a Turkish Family - Istanbul but of relevance to all of modern Turkey
  • The Uttermost Part of the Earth, Lucas Bridges- a lone witness to the old Spartan warrior tribes of Patagonia
  • My Traitors Heart, Rian Malan - South Africa.
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole - a bizarre one-off rabelesian novel, a tragic comedy set in New Orleans.
  • Dragon Apparent, Norman Lewis - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
  • Lords of the Atlas, Gavin Maxwell - Morocco, especially the Berber mountains of the High Atlas.
  • Hermit of Peking, Hugh Trevor Roper - an investigation into the trickster scholar Sir Edmund Backhouse which takes you into the Imperial Peking of old China.
  • Mungo Park, Travels into the Interior of Africa - the travel book of the travel writer par excellence: Mali, Niger, Senegal
  • Songlines, Bruce Chatwin - Australia is the canvas for his investigation into nomadic culture which pulls together his life work.
  • Village in the Jungle, Leonard Woolf - This dark, powerful but slim novel was created out of his experience of working as a colonial officer.
  • Cure for Serpents, Alberto denti di Pirajno - Libya drawn with humour, sensuality and affection by an Italian Duke who served as a doctor.
  • Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss - Amazon and anthropology, by one of the towering (but deeply cynical) intellects of France.
  • Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson - Highlands of Scotland.
  • A Visit to Don Otavio, Sybille Bedford -Mexico.
  • Arabian Sands, Wilfrid Thesiger - Southern Arabia especially the desert badlands between the Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
  • Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz - old Islamic Cairo, Egypt.
  • Swami and his Friends, R K Narayan. Southern India, specifically Mysore in Karnataka.
  • Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani- Ferrara specifically, but a powerful enough read anywhere in Northern Italy.
  • Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner - Virginia or any of the southern states of the USA.

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