BOOK REVIEW / Abroad view of the English: Nicholas Lezard on the road from Tuscany to Tonga

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PRENDERGAST in Decline and Fall compared marriage to 'abroad': no one would want to go there if they hadn't been told about it. Travel books - that is, books about 'abroad' - fall neatly into two camps: those that make you want to book your ticket shortly after you've turned the last page, and those which magnify the poignant pleasures of staying at home.

I fear for Tuscany, having read Matthew Spender's Within Tuscany (Viking pounds 16.99), but not as much as I feared for it during the first chapter of the book, which is about Spender moving to the region, charmingly infuriating Italian workmen and the like. Tuscany isn't exactly terra incognita, and the thought of thousands more British copycats going there is a gloomy one.

But Spender (relation) is no sleepwalking freeloader writing on autopilot. He is a sculptor and, like a surprising number of artists, an excellent writer too. Because he is a craftsman as much as an artist, his daily round is fascinating, whether he is talking with fabricators of bogus Renaissance cameos or climbing all over marble quarries where Michelangelo is reputed to have carved a large, lost M. His reflections on art are high-

calibre; his role model and father figure is Jacopo da Pontormo, 'a man of transparent timidity' who, if you believe his diaries, was more interested in his bowel movements than in his art.

Commissioned to carve a crucified Christ for the local church, Spender is nervous about his own agnosticism scuppering the project, and waffles about emphasising Christ's humanity. A nun points out she has to pray there three or four hours a day and adds: 'I hope very much you won't stress his suffering, as this can get to be a bit depressing.' Spender is marvellous at making sure other people get the best lines.

A good test of authenticity in a travel book is how the natives are represented in speaking their own tongue; if a foreign workman is allowed workable English but complete ignorance of the English for words like yes, no, good morning and goodbye ('Au revoir, monsieur Mayle'), you can chuck the book out. Spender doesn't do this, and neither does he make a big deal about being knowledgeable, simpatico, and all those other things the English abroad generally are not. He is more interested in his subjects than in himself.

The most thank-god-I'm-at-home-ish travel book you'll pick up for a while is Will Steger and Jon Bowermaster's Crossing Antarctica (Bantam pounds 16.99). Here ticklish questions like the writer's relationship with his terrain, and whether thousands will follow in his footsteps, don't really arise. Steger and his team decided, for the purposes of scientific research, world peace and profound lunacy, to cross Antarctica, the long way. That's 3,741 miles, bad enough in a comfy air-conditioned car, never mind on foot, which is how they did it, coping with 200mph winds and temperatures of -100 degrees. Read it and boggle.

You'll find it difficult to follow in Julian Evans's footsteps, too. Transit of Venus (Secker pounds 16.99) describes a trip round the islands of the Pacific: New Caledonia, Fiji, Tuvalu, Samoa and Tonga, among others. Evans's anecdotes are darkly informed by a knowledge of both past and continuing colonial despoliation: ranging from over-enthusiastic nuclear weapons testing to the recent swindle of Funafuti's philatelic bureau by the island's Channel Islands-based consultant. As the island has two industries - copra and funny-

coloured stamps - this is more serious than you might have thought. Evans is a sort of slimmed-down Theroux: the kind who realises that if you are going to take in the stuff about development grants and UN aid you will also want to know how his septic knee is getting on as well.

Finally, Douglas Kennedy's Chasing Mammon (HarperCollins pounds 14.99). Kennedy wrote In God's Country, a tour of America's Bible belt; if you've read that, you'll know he is a non-judgemental reporter, the kind who prefers to use his notebook instead of any inbuilt ethical sense. Here he chases round the world's money markets, from Wall Street to Singapore. Kennedy is a better collector of snapshots (the terror, for example, of being in a Singapore toilet that won't flush when the fine for not flushing one is pounds 150) than he is at thinking hard about the nature and essence of money itself. This isn't really his fault: it's no wonder, in the babble of voices he catches, that he finds it difficult to catch himself thinking.

Comments