Have Pen, Will Travel

Despite the most iron of wills Christmas remains a time of culinary indulgence and I, certainly did not fail to put on a few kilos during this period. No matter. The great thing about living here is that your surroundings are your gym (and I don’t mean just doing the more energetic household chores). Merely opening our front door displays a multitude of paths leading one to the most varied and enchanting locations at any season.

I’d already treaded the upper and lower paths encircling the hill above Gombereto but a chance meeting yesterday with a “house-sitter” enabled me to discover a connecting route from Gombereto directly up to the Pieve di Controni. Several of these paths are signposted, courtesy of that indefatigable worker for his village Claudio Gemignani, and the times indicated on them are very generous: the fitter among us could complete the circuit in rather less time – a welcome change from the walking time indications we found in Switzerland which had been clearly set by a crack team of highly trained swiss army soldiers! Spot the first crocus and an old fountain among yesterday’s snapshots:

The mention of house-sitting brings me to an activity which is quite prevalent in this part of the world when many houses are only occupied part-time by their foreign owners. House-sitting can provide a great way to experience life authentically in another country without having to fork out expensive bills on rents and car-hire. At the same time, a house-sitter has to be flexible, know how to handle problems which may arise at their “sitting” accommodation, love dogs and other animals and, above all, be thoroughly vetted. After all, it would not be a good idea to have an international diamond thief looking after one’s property (as, indeed, happened to one of our friends some years ago).There are several web-based organizations that can do this for one: for example, house sitters international at http://www.housesittersinternational.com/index.htm.

Already I have met delighted house-sitters from the antipodes and European countries and, although I have never been one myself, I have entrusted my house to a house-sitter. It was to a good friend of many years’ standing, (I think we first met in Beirut or was it Kabul?), and someone who’d already visited the area and knew, therefore, what to expect. I’d decided to take a look at Mongolia in the spring of 2008 and desperately needed a responsible biped to wait on my cats. The friend is a great travel writer – yet none of his books have been published, a great photographer, yet there is no coffee-table book containing his pictures and an incredible actor, yet no awards have been given to him.

How many people do we know who find themselves in the same position? They are no longer of the same mien as the “mute inglorious Milton” of Gray’s Elegy but highly talented creators whose work needs to be more widely known. Fortunately today, with on-line publishing and personal web-sites, it’s possible to disseminate one’s work to a wider audience –the blogs I read, for example, are only on-line and some of them are so good I find it difficult to realise that I’d never find the same material in a bookshop – although it’s true some of them do find their way onto the printed page, much as the diaries of a previous generation were worked up into a book..

I have two version of the unpublished travel book of the friend I alluded to. They are both beautifully written and very engrossing. The theme is a return to former Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where the author was born and brought up as the son of an RAF officer living in a British cantonment. One of the most moving episodes I recall is when the author returns to the cantonment a good forty years later and is immediately recognised by a now old and wizened man who used to be the gardener when he was a little nipper there. Another episode talks of an almost supernatural terror which gripped the writer when he was climbing to the top of a sacred Buddhist mountain and the strange forces which held him back from reaching the summit until help came from an unexpected source…

The friend’s photographs could be put on-line with little fuss: they are beautifully composed and, what is more, have that something-extra which only the greatest photographers can capture: a subtle point, a deep-seated reason for looking at them, a story to tell and thoughts to express. Many of the shots are taken in that most extraordinarily photogenic country, India, beloved of D, and many concentrate on poignant features of an empire too quickly lost. Regrettably, I hold a mere handful of these photos: here is a selection:

As for the acting? Who could ever forget D’s role as the father in Strindberg’s play of the same name – a semi-monologue of searing psychical force which few actors could face without fronting a severe reflection on their reasons for existing on this planet? No wonder D had to withdraw into himself for the whole time the performances continued.

Regarding travelling, which has to be the best education which this earth can offer to any person of whatever age (so long as they have a young spirit) not all travellers can produce good travel books and not all travel books are good reads. By chance, and certainly not by conscious choice, I have within my little library in Longoio three travel books which I regard as among the greatest contributions to the genre in the last century. I’m sure that the titles will concur with selections made by many other readers of this simply irresistible literary genre:

Robert Byron: The Road to Oxiana.

The book that set a new standard for all travel writing. Published in 1937 by the then 32 -year old (who was so tragically drowned when his ship was torpedo during the last war on its way to Egypt where he was to act as war correspondent) it describes a journey through Iran and Afghanistan to India. The description of the Bamiyan giant Buddhas which were blown up by the Taleban in our century is particularly fascinating even though the author didn’t like them much (nor did the inhabitants – even then).

Patrick Ellis-Fermor: A Time of Gifts

An incredibly evocative (and valuable, since it talks about an inter-war Europe before many places were blown to smithereens) account of a 20-year old’s walking trip from London to the East (in this volume he reaches Hungary). The descriptions are quite amazing and make up for the lack of photographs.

Eric Newby: Love and War in the Apennines.

An exciting and moving account which means a lot more to me now that I’m living in the sort of Apennine country that Newby operated in as a British intelligence officer during the last conflict. It’s great when you can definitely believe that a travel book is authentic because you too have experienced those nights in the freezing cold of the mountains, slept in caves, received generous food gifts from local shepherds etc.

It would be interesting to know what travel books anyone who reads this have enjoyed. Certainly, living in a different country increases one’s interest in this type of book a hundredfold.

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