BOOK REVIEW / So sneer, and yet so far: Linda Grant finds that some travel writers pack their prejudices with their luggage

Linda Grant
Saturday 11 July 1992 23:02

WHY DO they do it? Why, for example, did Anthony Daniels go to Africa and on his return write a travel book called Monrovia Mon Amour: A Visit to Liberia (John Murray pounds 17.95)? The author, a doctor, boards ship in medias res at Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, with his box of time-

expired medicaments, and is decanted into Liberia in the aftermath of its civil war. Has he come to help? The doctor's bag remains firmly shut for the duration of his stay. To report? The place is already crawling with foreign press.

There can only be one other reason. He came to sneer. At Africa, at its psychotic dictators, its brutality and its travesty of democracy. Pompous, high-minded, judgemental - this is Africa from the vantage point of the MCC pavilion, an exercise in the dissemination of Daily Telegraph opinions under the guise of travel. Whatever reason Anthony Daniels had for going to Liberia, it was not to understand.

Air travel is so cheap and swift that anyone can go into a bookshop, look for the gaps between the countries, buy a ticket at a bucket-shop, head out for a holiday and come back to knock out an ill-considered manuscript. Lucretia Stewart spent the Sixties and Seventies oblivious to the existence of the Vietnam war until, as a member of the media generation, she saw it at the movies. As the daughter of a diplomat, she had dim memories of China. Grown up, she thought she'd give Indochina a whirl. Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia (Chatto pounds 10.99) is a tale of sitting about in hotels and bars, feeling bored and lonely and sexually deprived, indulging in sporadic skirmishes with her minders, who won't let her see anything or go anywhere. Tiger Balm is a primer on how to whinge in three different languages.

I think that Kenneth White went to South-east Asia for the chicks. But perhaps Kenneth White isn't a real person at all, and Pilgrim of the Void: Travels in South-East Asia and the North Pacific (Mainstream pounds 14.99) is a wind-up by its publishers. White is, according to the blurb, a professor at the Sorbonne, the man who 'put forward the first coherent expression of post-modernity' and 'one of the most important writers of the time'. Mr White ponders the East:

For years too, I considered the 'east', as the limit of a certain orientation, that orientation which for me began high up in the North-west was in my own substance, within my own six feet and 72 kilos - and that still goes. But now I have, to some extent, found that East within myself, as a result of long quiet study interspersed with fracture zones, I'm avid for a sheer plunge into open, flowing life, with nothing to refuse and no holds barred. Because, where I am now, there's no difference at all between Nirvana and Samsara and, as I think Nietzsche says somewhere, it's possible to be superficial - out of depth.

Too much Thai stick, maybe, but the sheer plunge always drops him straight into the same place: with little Lotus Blossom and her pimp, whose 'r' sound is rendered like this: 'Velly beautiful lady. You should tly her.'

None of these authors has the real travel writer's eye of, say, Norman Lewis or Paul Theroux, who travel because they must, nor their capacity to come home with marvellous tales. There is no story because their holidays never engage with the place. Peregrine Hodson and Dennis Hills, however, are writers with no ticket back. Speaking fluent Japanese, working for a European bank, Hodson was shipped off by his company to beat the foreigners at their own game, to get their cash. A Circle Round the Sun: A Foreigner in Japan (Heinemann pounds 16.99) reads like a series of prose haikus, as the author struggles to make sense of his situation and fend off his increasing paranoia about his bosses and their intentions, often tearing off the mask of smiling courtesy to find the rudeness and indifference beneath. His love affair with Japan, paralleled by a love affair with a Japanese woman, gradually possesses him as his personality disintegrates and fractures beneath his increasing Japaneseness.

Hills, a contemporary of Enoch Powell at school in Birmingham after the First World War, is like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel, the chap who always turns up: in Romania at the outbreak of the Second World War, with Olivia Manning and Reggie Smith; at Monte Cassino; helping surrender the Cossacks to Stalin; and in Uganda during the Seventies, where he offended Idi Amin, was sentenced to death and had to be rescued by a flying visit from Callaghan, then Foreign Secretary. Hills's book Tyrants and Mountains: A Reckless Life (John Murray pounds 19.95) is an account of six decades of knocking about, told from the vantage point of an octogenarian retirement in a bedsit in Twickenham. He is a natural exile and adventurer, one of life's great troublemakers, rarely touching base back in England and only writing a book when he has something interesting to say. Pull up the chair, throw another log on the fire and another splash of Johnny Walker in the tumbler and read. I couldn't stop.

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