Books: Around the world in eighty gags
Say farewell to the gent's club and `Hi!' to the fun pub. Nicholas Murray traces the travel-writer's route from patrician adventure to populist stunt; Scoop-Wallah: life on a Delhi daily by Justine Hardy John Murray, pounds 16.99, 266pp; Big Snake: the hunt for the world's longest python by Robert Twigger Gollancz, pounds 15.99, 319ppFrost on my Moustache: the Arctic exploits of a lord and a loafer by Tim Moore Abacus, pounds 10.99, 280pp
Saturday 01 May 1999
These three books are all attempts to come up with something new and, as their subtitles suggest, travel-writing has gone high-concept. But the old habits of the English travelogue, it turns out, are not so easily discarded. The patrician style of classic practitioners like Patrick Leigh- Fermor - in which the well-born public-school man would drift across Europe with a gilded address book, pausing only to fan his feathers in a virtuoso display of scholarship - lingers now only in a few writers. The new twentysomethings of the genre have swapped the learned and assured pose of the mandarin for that of the boy or girl next door. Comic self-deprecation - always a feature of the English travel book - has come to dominate it. But here it has a new dimension, a sort of post-Imperial tristesse that surfaces in all three books.
In so far as they rise to such levels of seriousness, each of them is clearly troubled by the contrasts between their own ventures and those of the imperial ancestors they fitfully interrogate. Beneath the flaunted ignorance and incompetence, the furious playing for laughs, there is a striking vulnerability or perplexity about these end-of-the-century travellers. And, perhaps surprisingly, the figure of Kipling keeps popping up in all three.
Justine Hardy is the most serious. Acting impulsively on a suggestion (while buying a cabbage) from her Kashmiri greengrocer in Holland Park that she take her journalistic talents to India in order to understand the country, she signs on for a stint on the English-language Indian Express. Better equipped than most travellers - she speaks some Hindustani and has an informed grasp of Indian politics - Hardy struggles to persuade her editor to allow her to pursue serious investigations rather than lifestyle- froth journalism. "Why do you want to spend all your time with these peasants?" her Delhi landlord, a former prince, demands peremptorily when she returns from an encounter in the High Himalayas with the Dalai Lama and his followers.
The desire to understand a country in flux leads her to negotiate "the muddy marsala of cultural misunderstanding": to visit Assam, where a bewildering variety of separatist terrorists stalk the beauty of the tea-gardens, to penetrate a strobe-lit city disco in pursuit of the truth about the extent of Aids, and to brave the brittle snobbery of the Jaipur Polo Ground. "As India tried to reinvent herself I had to learn to swim instead of cling," she is forced to conclude. "But you want to be an insider, yaar?" a sceptical local female journalist asked her. "Why else would you want to work for an Indian newspaper?"
Hardy protests that she is just trying to learn and her honest attempt to do so makes Scoop-Wallah into an attractive as well as a lively book, its prose just occasionally too magazine-glossy ("Death is hardly softened by a bit of alphabetical juggling, Scrabble at flesh-piercing velocity," she writes after separating out all the terrorist group acronyms in Assam). For the most part, however, this is a funny, fresh and occasionally sad take on a country that no one - not even the lapsed princes and commissioning editors - is really going to understand.
Robert Twigger's opening paragraph in Big Snake demonstrates the comprehensive influence of Bruce Chatwin on a younger generation of travel writers. "In a studio flat in south London I spoke over a hissing international line to Cairo. The voice coming back to me was precise, accented and elderly. It was the first time I had spoken to a retired Egyptian general and I was asking him if I could marry his daughter." The short sentences, swift narrative, and tall tales told in laconic scraps of dialogue are all here. But Chatwin was more than the sum of his stylistic tics. The driven intellectuality, the life-long obsessional interrogation of the need to wander, are largely absent from these light-hearted romps.
The premise of the book is that, with four months to go before his marriage, Twigger has one last chance for adventure. There is a reward out for catching the world's longest python, but no prizes for guessing whether Twigger eventually catches his prey. I confess that my attention flagged at points during this python-less pursuit, although the glimpses of contemporary Malaysia (such as a rave on top of a tower block in Kuala Lumpur) were diverting.
Twigger makes a stab at a Chatwinesque Big Idea by pondering on the significance of the snake (chthonic anatagonist of the philosophies of light and reason) but, mostly, this is a comic Englishman- in-the-jungle affair. And it is haunted by the presence of Twigger's uncle, Colonel H, a retired swashbuckling imperialist for whom he evinces evident nostalgia and a perplexed sense of distance - as if his generation will never know the bulldog breed's venturesomeness.
The sub-text seems to be that the empire was lost not because of a just restitution but because the later generation were wimps. "There was no British empire to back me up," Twigger reflects at a particularly sticky point in the jungle.
"Our forefathers had done it all before and, as there was clearly no point doing it again, we'd made virtues out of under-achievement and torpor," echoes Tim Moore during his journey in pursuit of the Victorian Arctic adventurer, Lord Dufferin. Moore, who describes himself as "a failed dandy", takes the Twigger logic one stage further and plays Frost on my Moustache entirely for laughs, celebrating his unfitness for the task, intellectually and physically.
The humour is not exactly Wildean, but this is the funniest book of the three. "My idea of tackling one of the world's most appalling maritime challenges is being able to stand up on a lilo" is a representative Moore gag. As a celebrity jacket puff from Sir Ranulph Fiennes deftly suggests, this is essentially "terrific fun" rather than a contribution to the literature of Arctic exploration. As far as the boys (at least) are concerned, travel- writing seems to have come out of the shadows of the gentleman's club and into the bright decor of the Fun Pub.
Nicholas Murray wrote `Bruce Chatwin' (Seren); his life of Andrew Marvell appears in September
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