The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara

The book tells the story of a journey made almost on a whim by Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado almost the full length of South America initially using Guevara’s 500cc Norton motorcycle which is what gives the book its title. However from when they leave Buenos Aires on 4th January 1952 to arriving in Caracas on 17th July almost all the trip is done via hitch-hiking on lorries as the bike broke completely between Lautaro and Los Angeles in southern Chile on the 21st February. At the time Guevara was a student doctor and Granado was a qualified biochemist and taking what was intended to be a year long break to explore South America was seen as madness but neither man could be persuaded to delay the trip. Ernesto would return to medical school and qualify as a doctor before becoming known the world over as Che Guevara the revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro overthrow Fulgencio Batista the then dictator in Cuba before going on to assist in various revolutionary movements across South America and even in Africa. Che simply means pal or mate in Argentinian Spanish but it was the name he would have as his own for most of his adult life and is still how he is best known today.

But this book precedes his fame, he was only 23 when they set out, Granado was 29, and this review is published on my blog on what would have been Ernesto Guevara’s 94th birthday (14th June) if he hadn’t been executed by Bolivian forces on the 9th October 1967 when he was just 39. It wasn’t Guevara’s first journey by motorbike, he had already done at least one very long trip but that was by himself, taking Granado as well just on the one bike was somewhat overloading its capacity and it really didn’t take long for the poor roads and the extra weight to take its toll. At first they just used wire to hold the bike together but then they started to get repeated punctures which proved tricky to fix especially when splits started happening due to multiple holes near one another and the bike finally broke its steering column which consigned it to the scrap heap. This was not a luxury trip, they were largely impoverished on the journey living from hand to mouth, cadging beds and food as well as they could and using a largely fake fame as famous Argentinian leprosy specialists to ingratiate themselves with anyone they could. To be fair Granado did know a lot about leprosy and Guevara was considering making it his speciality when he graduated and they did visit several leper colonies on the trip so they probably knew more than anyone else apart from the specialist doctors at the colonies. But even this appeal to peoples charity didn’t work very well so they were often cold and hungry.

Amongst other ‘cons’ they used to get looked after was to stare dreamily into space after asking what the date was and saying ‘Oh we have been on the road for a year as of today’ and people would help them celebrate by buying food and drink. Guevara was particularly good at when being offered a drink he would just sip at it and when asked why he would explain that Argentinians don’t just drink they would always have food with alcohol and it felt strange to just have a drink. This would invariably get some food on the table for them. The full journey was to head south from Buenos Aires into Chile, go north through that country and then onto Peru, where they visited Lake Titicaca and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. They continued from Peru into Colombia and Venezuela where Guevara and Granado split up so that Guevera could get back to university by plane. This final stage however didn’t go to plan, as so much of the entire journey hadn’t, as to get a cheap flight he agreed to help ship racehorses to Miami with the plane due to fly back to Caracas and then onto Buenos Aires the next day. Instead the plane broke down in Miami and he was stuck there for a month waiting for it to be fixed.

The book was first published in 1993, with the translation into English by Ann Wright published in 1995 by Verso, so well after Guevara’s death, and was put together from his manuscript notes written during the journey. There is also a preface and an epilogue, both written by Guevara’s father, the epilogue details the fraught long unwanted stay in America. I have to say that this particular copy of the book, the thirteenth impression by Fourth Estate, is very badly printed with considerable over inking on random pages making it quite difficult to read in places but it was well worth the effort to get a glimpse into the development of a future revolutionary. You can see in his writing a change as he glimpses the extreme poverty that a lot of the continent is stuck in and the largely despotic rulers that control the lives of the population. Definitely a recommended read.

Black on Black: Iran Revisited – Ana M Briongos

Ana Maria Briongos is a Catalan writer from Barcelona who first went to Iran for the academic year of 1973-74 to study Persian but this book is mainly about a month long return journey she made in April 1994 where she catches up with old friends from twenty years ago. The book is interesting because of the contrast she is able to provide between life in the last days of the Shah against post revolutionary Iran and importantly it also gives a female perspective of the restrictions and some benefits of the strict Islamic life that she encounters on this revisiting. I chose to read the book as a modern follow up to ‘The Road to Oxiana‘ which I enjoyed so much last month and it gives a view that is much more familiar to me as it is set just four years before I was to visit Iran.

A woman travelling on her own has to know how to look after herself and be respected, which means dressing appropriately and using common sense. Travelling on her own a woman has access to places where a man could never go.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, especially Iran, and Briongos takes us to some of those places but particularly we visit friends and their families especially Bahman who hosted Briongos in Tehran and drove her to various places outside the capital during the thirteen day festival that coincided with her arrival, so getting to know Iranian family life, the jealously guarded recipes for specific foods which each Iranian housewife puts out to impress visitors and the tight knitted relationships across generations. In particular we are introduced to Rave and her grand-daughter with Down’s Syndrome Bubu, these two would be constant characters whenever Briongos was in Tehran during April 1994. Rave was one of the wives of Bahman’s father and had become a sort of mother hen for lots of his children regardless of which wife was actually their mother. She was very unwell and trying to get treatment in Europe which at the end of the book we find that she does succeed in doing before ultimately emigrating to Australia with Babu and Babu’s mother, whom we never actually meet because she was living in Hamburg. It is good that things worked out for Rave and Babu you really feel for both of them as the narrative progresses.

Interspersed with the account of the trip in 1994 are lots of memories of her first visit to the country both retelling of stories from then and also trips such as going back to the university where she studied two decades earlier only to find that she couldn’t go to the building where she lived then as it was now male only whereas before it was strictly a female domain, wanting to at least go somewhere familiar from that time she ventures into the library only to encounter a professor who had taught her all those years ago and who promptly whisks her off to the park over the road where they can chat and catch up more freely. It’s the personal touches that really make this book so enjoyable to read, you really feel as though you are with her on this trip back into her past.

This was Briongos’s first book, published in 1996, although she has written ten more since then about her times in Afghanistan, India and further trips to Iran. My copy is the first English translation published in 2000 as part of the Lonely Planet Journeys series, a now defunct series of travel books which I really enjoyed whilst they existed due to their eclectic range and focus on personal stories. When I discovered the series was being killed off I bought as many of the titles I didn’t already have as I could find and this book was one of them. Twenty years later I have finally opened it after it sat on the shelves waiting for me to get to it and I know there are still a couple of that batch of books I bought all in one go that are still waiting. I enjoyed this book so much that I suspect they will not have much longer before I finally get to read them.

The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana is more than a travel diary, indeed it isn’t really a diary at all although it reads like one, as Byron actually took several years to produce something that appears to have been written at the time with it finally being first published in 1937. This is one of the all time classic travel books, like Patrick Leigh Fermors’ A Time of Gifts, also about a journey undertaken in 1933, this is a book by a young man who was experiencing the world at a momentous period between the two wars. Byron was 28, Fermor was even younger at just 19 and like Byron actually wrote his classic work several years later although in his case it wasn’t finished and published until 1977 when Fermor was 62. The Road to Oxiana is unfortunately not as well known as Fermor’s work but it deserves to be just as well read, partly for it’s historical nature but also for the insight it gives to countries and peoples that it can be very difficult to visit nowadays.

Byron’s humour and infectious enthusiasm for the countries he travels through and the people he meets starts with an apparent disaster with the non-arrival in Beirut of the experimental, and somewhat surreal, charcoal powered Rolls Royce that he had intended to travel in with his long suffering companion Christopher Sykes. We then continue on the road in a series of unpredictable and often ramshackle vehicles and an equal collection of unpredictable and ramshackle horses and ponies whilst continually dodging the Persian secret police who were desperate to find out what on Earth these men were doing. It was concern about these not very surreptitious although supposedly secret followers that led him not to refer to The Shah by name at any time in the notes he took whilst in Iran but to instead have that tiresome fellow Marjoribanks. The book is quite often funny especially in the reconstructed conversations that Byron has with varied notables during the trip often as they attempt to fleece him as he is seen as a wealthy traveller.

Not for nothing is the book called the Road to Oxiana, as the River Oxus, which is ostensibly the destination, only gets a brief mention at the very end although I won’t spoil the story by saying how. No, this is a book of a journey and the care and time that Byron took over his choice of words draws the reader into the extraordinary life of Iran at the peak of the Peacock throne, from unbelievable wealth to grinding poverty. We travel the length and breadth of this huge and truly spectacular country, about two thirds the size of the European Union with enormous mountain ranges and vast deserts all faithfully illustrated by Byron’s pen. However it isn’t just Iran that is covered in the narrative, although the majority of the book covers this vast country, we also visit Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and finish in Peshawar which was then in India and is now part of Pakistan.

This was Byron’s eighth, and final, book and his previous travel books had included a drive from England to Greece (his first book Europe in the Looking-Glass) and a couple of further books detailing his experiences in Greece along with a journey to Russia and Tibet and a visit to India. He also fitted in a history of Western painting and a book on architecture, but it is for The Road to Oxiana that he is known today. Sadly Byron was on board a ship that was torpedoed in 1941 on his way to Africa presumably on a mission for British Intelligence and his body was never found. Who knows where he would have got to had he survived the war and what books he would have written. Christopher Sykes went on to write a short memoir to his friend in his book Four Studies in Loyalty which was published in 1946.

I first read the book whilst travelling around Iran myself in 1998 and have returned to the book with increasing pleasure several times. I promise that you don’t need to visit Iran to love this book although be warned it may make you want to go there as well. The copy I currently have on my shelves is the Folio Society edition from 2000 which is beautifully illustrated with seventeen of Byron’s photographs taken whilst on the trip and bound in full cloth, gold blocked with a design by Francis Moseley.

Shopping for Buddhas – Jeff Greenwald

The book starts in October 1987 with Jeff and his girlfriend caught out by a violent snowstorm in the mountains at Gosainkund in the Langtang national park about 30 miles north of Kathmandu. They eventually make their way down through the deep snow that obscured all the paths along with a German couple and their guides and Jeff decides that to mark the escape he wants a Buddha statue, but not just any Buddha statue it must be the best he can get for a budget of up to $300. Kathmandu and the neighbouring city of Patan are covered in small shops selling Buddhas along with a vast range of Hindu and Buddhist gods of which there are thousands to choose from but the quality varies dramatically and the very best pieces are rarely on the shelves but secreted away for collectors in back rooms.

Ostensibly the book is about Jeff’s search for the perfect Buddha and his frustration with minor, and sometimes major, errors in the proportions or features. To positively identify a figure as Buddha it needs to pass the thirty two significant traits along with eighty less significant ones and he lists seventeen of these to give some idea as to the level of detail he was looking for, such as the wheels marked on the feet and the lotus blossom and conch shell trumpet on the palms. There should be a mole like mark between his eyes known as the urna and the eyes themselves should be centred and slightly downcast. The list goes on and made finding his perfect Buddha extremely difficult. I say ostensibly though because the book is a lot more than an extended shopping expedition over a period of about seven months, we also learn something about the lives of the Nepalese and the corruption, narcotic abuse and police brutality that they are subjected to.

A lot of the narcotic smuggling into the country and artwork and antique smuggling out is blamed on members of the royal family by Greenwald who at the time were untouchable as rulers of the only Hindu kingdom which they ran like medieval monarchs not subject to any aspect of the laws of the country. He speaks to many people to confirm this and is duly warned off by others including a smuggling boss. He also refers to an Amnesty International report of human rights abuses in the country where anyone can be locked up for months at a time without recourse to any legal process and when they are released can be arrested again the next day to be subject to more beatings and torture at the hands of the police and prison authorities. To the outsider Nepal is a paradise, to the locals it could often be a prison and a particularly awful prison at that.

The final chapter in the Lonely Planet edition was written six years after the book had first been published in America in 1990 and deals with the change of the political situation after the king was forced to move towards a more constitutional rather than absolute monarchy in 1990 but even then the power of the monarchy was still overbearing. This would be illustrated by the royal massacre of 2001 when Prince Dipendra used an automatic rifle to murder the King, Queen and seven other members of the royal family at a party before apparently shooting himself. During the three days he survived he was declared King and therefore immune from prosecution before dying and the monarchy passing to his brother Gyanendra. Dipendra and Gyanendra are named in Greenwald’s book as the heads of the smuggling operations in the country. In 2008 the monarchy was deposed and the worlds only Hindu kingdom became a federal republic.

Ten years after Greenwald’s marathon shopping trip, which did result in him buying a Buddha although for considerably more that his original $300 I was also in Kathmandu and whilst I didn’t have the budget that Jeff Greenwald had, after all I was there to go trekking in the Everest region and that cost enough, I was also captivated by the metal casting craftsmanship displayed all over the city. Although like Jeff I also found that there was a lot of dross to pick through before finding the perfect figures made of brass and bronze which are now on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.

The Buddhist gods and goddesses I purchased during my visit to Nepal in April 1997, from left to right;
Kharachheri – A form of Bodhisatwa Avalokiteswara, known as the six syllabled Lokeswara “Om Mani Padme Hum’ which is carved on rock faces and chanted all over Nepal.
Mayadevi – The mother of Siddhartha Gautam
Green Tara – The spiritual consort of the Dhyani Buddha and is incarnated in all good women

Three Letters from The Andes – Patrick Leigh Fermor

In 1971 Patrick Leigh Fermor, already by then a respected travel writer, but still six years before he published his best known work ‘A Time of Gifts’, went with five friends to the Andes in Peru. This book consists of three long letters to his wife although he never actually posted the third one as he didn’t finish it until he was on his way home. The expedition was part of a trip organised by his fellow members of the Andean Society in London using privately chartered aircraft to get to and from Peru from London and Fermor’s friends were intent on exploring and scaling the peaks of a relatively unknown part of the Andes mountain range. If all this sounds expensive then it probably was but Fermor and his colleagues could certainly afford it, most of the party were highly experienced climbers:

  • Robin Fedden – Leader of this expedition, Deputy Director-General of Historic Buildings for The National Trust, a writer and diplomat
  • Renee Fedden – Robin’s wife and co leader of the expedition
  • Carl Natar – Ex world ski champion and London manager of famous jewellers Cartier for three decades
  • Andre Choremi – Lawyer and social anthropologist

Along with them were a couple of non climbers

  • Andrew Cavendish – 11th Duke of Devonshire and a keen amateur botanist looking for rare plants to grow at his stately home Chatsworth House in Derbyshire
  • Patrick Fermor – travel writer, just along to spend six weeks with his friends and explore the area with them.

The letters were not intended for publication, and it took twenty years before they were, after what Fermor describes as a general tidy up but not much. That these were originally just letters leads to the main criticism levelled at the book in that it is not as polished as his other works and it feels more like an old boys outing with irrelevant chit chat coming to the fore. Well yes, these are letters to his wife who knew most, if not all, the other people involved and recording the conversations between them is entirely right in that context. I quite like the chattiness of the style and I raced through the book, reading it in just two sessions, as I found it quite difficult to put down once I had started reading. It is full of beautiful descriptive passages as he tries to convey the beauty of the surroundings. To illustrate this I’m just going to open the book at random and quote whatever I find.

The mountains draw back of either side of an airy lift and fall of savannah. As our caravan picked its way over the edge and headed downhill, orange-flowered organ-cactus and myrtle and tamarisk rose up and the air began to smell of spice. There was a blazing sky of very pale blue.

From the second letter

You could almost be there, in just three short sentences Fermor has captured his environs perfectly and as I said this is literally a random sample, not a passage I had picked out in advance, opening the book anywhere will show his talent to take the reader with him which would be displayed fully in his masterpiece of travel writing, ‘A Time for Gifts’. After the climbing expedition the friends head off to Lake Titicaca where they end up in a terrible hotel and the sections covering their always exasperating dealings with the manager and the chef who appears to be incapable of even boiling an egg successfully are very funny. A sudden announcement that there is actually hot water for a change will have the group dive for the showers only for the water to turn icy cold just as they were starting to enjoy finally getting clean. You have to wonder if the manager was incompetent or simply didn’t care about the people staying there. It was only when Andrew in frustration at yet another rock hard egg for breakfast threw it across the dining room did conditions start to improve.

As usual with Fermor the book is thoroughly entertaining and I definitely recommend it.

Sacred Britain – Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer

OK let’s start off by saying this book is a little odd and although I’m sure it could be used in the way it appears to have designed I have never done so in the twenty four years I have owned it. The book lives in my car rather than on a bookshelf and the times I have referred to it are when I am away from home and for some reason have some spare time to do a little exploring. But lets get back to why I think it’s odd. Firstly it is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. Now why, coming up to the millennium, this charity thought it appropriate to involve itself in a project regarding sacred spaces is beyond me as apart a small reference to trees and plants commonly found in a British churchyard there appears to be nothing linking nature to this book. Secondly although there are ancient pilgrimage routes in Britain these have been largely ignored by the authors, apart from one route to Canterbury cathedral, and instead they have created their own routes linking various sites which are usually associated with a varied selection of faiths, including pagan, all in one journey. Even the journey to Canterbury which was a major Christian pilgrimage in medieval times especially for those unable for financial or time reasons to make the trip to the Holy Land the suggested journey in this book goes via an iron age fort, the remains of a 1000 year old synagogue, a druids grove and some neolithic burial mounds, none of which fit in with a Christian pilgrimage. The inclusion of some excellent churches, cathedrals and ruined abbeys does not really get away from the trip being an odd mish mash of sites. The third oddity is to do with the panel maps within the text of the routes which are all narrow vertical pictures regardless of the true geography and to my mind are also upside down. Now there are ‘proper’ maps as well but these are the ones that you have to hand so to speak.

The example above shows what I mean, this is a journey TO St David’s and if you are going to ignore geographic orientation, north is to the right on this panel, then at least work down the picture to the destination not up. Also as you can see the text doesn’t actually refer to the map on the page, in fact that part of the journey is eight or nine pages further on, where there is no map but could easily have been one. The whole page layout throughout the book is as confusing as the selection of routes, you find yourself either inserting lots of bookmarks or constantly flipping between pages in an attempt to follow what is going on.

So why am I reading it this time, rather than dipping in for a specific locality which is my usual way of using the book? Well England is about to come out of what is the third and hopefully last lock down to prevent the spread of Covid 19 and I’m desperate to escape these four walls and go somewhere, in fact pretty well anywhere and I’m looking for inspiration. In all there are thirteen of these suggested journeys and they cover most of England, Scotland and Wales, the latter two will still be out of bounds next week but it should be possible to go somewhere in England if only for a day trip as overnight accommodation is still not easily available and won’t be for at least another month, probably longer. I’m not looking for a route but a destination preferably not too far away and if there is somewhere else interesting near to it then that would be a bonus. The one advantage of the route structure of the book is that places near one another are next to each other in the book so you can get happy accidents of two or three interesting places all in one go.

There are also sections that don’t stick to the routes but dot around by theme and one of these chapters on stone circles and tombs has probably inspired me to journey out on day trips more than any other and this is the only travel guide I own that specifically has a section on these ancient sites. So what to make of the book as a whole, well as I said at the beginning it’s odd and doesn’t really work in the way it was intended. It can also be infuriating due to the constant chopping and changing of pages to see what should be all together but it has earned its place in my car for when I have a spontaneous urge to go somewhere unplanned. It also has the advantage that it doesn’t matter that it is nearly a quarter of century old, which would be a serious handicap in most guide books as it is specifically pointing you to places that largely haven’t changed for centuries and will remain for years to come.

This book was originally published in 1997 by Piatkus in the UK and was reprinted in the USA in 2000 by Hidden Spring Books under the title ‘The Spiritual Traveller’. The sequence of some of the chapters are altered and suggestions of places to stay are added in the American edition but the books are to all intents and purposes the same.

Maverick in Madagascar – Mark Eveleigh

This is not my own lie. This is a lie that the ancestors told me

Mark Eveleigh opens his book with this traditional start to any story being told in Madagascar as he describes his plan to walk from north to south along the western coastline of the fourth largest island in the world and before you even get to that original plan you know that he doesn’t succeed because the maps at the very beginning of the book only show less than a quarter to that route. Instead there is a second map relating to Part II of the book where he heads across the middle of the country in a search for the Vazimba tribe who are a group of white pygmies not seen for decades or even centuries and this may be because the various tales relating to them describe them as alternately not short and not white. This is going to be a difficult hunt.

That his original plan was doomed almost from the start was due in part to the late rainy season which made the going even more difficult that it should have been and the fact that, despite his intention to purchase a horse as a pack animal for his equipment, all the horses in the north of the country appeared to have succumbed to a mysterious disease and died in the few months before he got there. Instead he decides to buy Jobi the bull zebu (a local breed of humped cattle) and despite warnings that nobody could drive a zebu that far decides to set off in the company, at least initially, of a couple of locals who were taking two cows for slaughter part way down the route he would have to follow,

Mark is an entertaining writer, particularly when describing his own discomforts, and there are plenty of those especially in Part II where he gets poisoned by various plants that he is walking through and has recurrences of the malaria he first caught in Indonesia whilst trying to avoid being shot by bandits. He is also an excellent photographer so it is somewhat disappointing that despite frequent references to taking photographs the format of the Lonely Planet Journey’s books doesn’t allow for pictures apart from on the cover as you so want a few pages of images especially when he describes a breathtaking view. He also clearly bonded with Jobi during his aborted trek and is genuinely upset when the walk has to be abandoned partly due to Jobi getting unwell so he sells him for a significant loss to a family that will take care of him rather than the higher offers from others where his lifespan is likely to be considerably shorter.

What stands out through the whole book is the welcoming and friendly nature of almost all the Malagasy people he meets, apart from the bandits, and their determination to share what little they have despite Madagascar being one of the poorest countries on Earth. Their astonishment that a Vazaha (literally outsider) has made it to their isolated village, quite probably the first white man that the children at least have ever seen, is an ongoing theme. Madagascar does have its tourist traps but they are few and far between and due to the danger of travelling especially in the zone rouge in the middle of the country tourists tend to be restricted to these small areas and mainly to an island off the west coast which Mark visits in order to complete paperwork and send letters but gets away from as quickly as possible. It’s a really good read and I definitely recommend it.

Lonely Planet Journeys was a relatively short lived series of travellers tales published by Lonely Planet between 1996 and 2002, I really enjoyed the eclectic selection and when it became clear the series was coming to an end I bought up as many different ones as I could find in my local bookshop and in all have twenty five titles. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive list of all the book published under this imprint, the LibraryThing list has forty seven titles but includes several books that were not actually part of the series so I’m guessing that I’m missing no more than ten actual books from the set, probably quite a bit fewer than that. This one has been sitting unread on my shelves for twenty years so it was about time I finally got round to picking it up. I have read most of the ones I have now but whilst checking the shelves for the date range and the tally of books there are at least two that I have no memory of reading so they will probably appear sometime in the next few months.

The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

20200818 Voyage of the Beagle 1

At over 206,000 words this is the second of the three large books for my August scientific reading marathon. I chose it in preference to The Origin of Species (first published 1859) for several reasons, including the fact that it is a lot more readable, but mainly because in this you can see Darwin slowly edging towards the theory that would make him famous. This is especially true of the second edition (1845, the first edition was in 1839, twenty years before his more famous work), the text of which is used for this book as Darwin altered sections in light of his research and developing thoughts. Another reason is that I love the work of Robert Gibbings who illustrated this Heritage Press volume. Although called a journal which implies a diary like approach, and yes most of the entries do have the date at their start, it is not chronological. We do bounce around a bit for a few years as The Beagle was on a nearly five year surveying mission so tends to revisit places several times and Darwin to make things clearer and avoid the obvious repetition has entries that may be months or years apart but which are put together because geographically they make more sense that way. It actually took me a while to realise what was going on and it was only when I stepped back a couple of pages to refresh my memory that I spotted that the entry there was two years after the one I was reading.

20200818 Voyage of the Beagle 2

Throughout the text you can see Darwin edging towards evolution and the concept of gradual change in species. He also references many species which have the dubious distinction of being ‘described by Darwin but now extinct’ including a type of cattle in South America and on the Falkland Islands a species of wolf which he describes as a fox when he sees it and noted it’s decline.

Their numbers have rapidly decreased; they are already banished from that half of the island which lies to the eastward of the neck of land between St Salvador Bay and Berkeley Sound. Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the Earth.

This may well be the earliest documented use of the dodo as a reference point for extinction of a species.

When you think of Darwin’s voyage then most people automatically think about the Galapagos Islands but in truth he spent very little time there arriving on 15th September and on his way to Tahiti by 20th October 1835. Just over a month out of a almost five year voyage and they take up in this edition twenty seven pages out of almost five hundred despite having more illustrations than most other sections. What we do get is a basic description of what have become known as Darwin’s finches as he realises that the bill shapes on different islands vary dramatically in order to make best use of the food supplies found there. Despite the giant tortoises being the most famous residents and symbol of the archipelago it was the finches that really drove his realisation of what became known as evolution. He is also one of the first people to accurately describe the marine iguanas found exclusive on these islands and notice their diet of seaweed rather then the belief up until then that they were after fish.

20200818 Voyage of the Beagle 3

When reading the book one thing you notice is just how much time Darwin isn’t on board The Beagle, he goes off on long expeditions inland sometimes for weeks at a time whilst Captain Fitzroy is engaged on his duties creating charts for the admiralty. You therefore get long passages where he either makes circuits when the ship will be in one place for a period of time or he arranges to meet the vessel at a specified port further along the coast. The observations he makes away from the coastal areas add greatly to his geological studies and give fascinating diversions to life on board ship, but I suspect they are also inspired by his desire to be on solid ground due to the really bad seasickness he was prone to, which almost made him leave the expedition within a few weeks of the start. Science was greatly enhanced by his decision to keep going regardless but it was so close to being abandoned before he could make any of his discoveries.

20200818 Voyage of the Beagle 4

Towards the end of the book the Beagle goes to the Keeling Islands and it is here that Darwin comes up with a theory for how coral islands and reefs are formed and ultimately writes another book on the subject. This is one of the few passages where the text becomes difficult to follow as he references maps from the other book without the reader of this volume having access to them, but there is enough for you to understand the process proposed. Other than this section the book is extremely readable even in this full form. Most versions printed nowadays, including the Penguin Classics edition are heavily edited and have more than 25% removed coming out at less than 150,000 words, which is still a substantial work but I would rather read a complete edition.

A Valley in Italy – Lisa St Aubin de Teran

20200714 A Valley in Italyr

Subtitled ‘Confessions of a House Addict’ the book more than lives up to that description. St Aubin de Teran is a novelist and I have several of her books although I am mainly drawn to her autobiographical work documenting her increasingly complicated life as she bounces from country to country. She was born in London, but when she had just turned sixteen married a much older Venezuelan sugar plantation owner and bank robber, hence her surname. Eventually she moved to that country at the age of seventeen and ran his estate over the next seven years. It was here that she had her daughter Iseult, known throughout this book as ‘the child Isuelt’ or more simply ‘the child’ despite there also being a younger brother (by her second husband) who is normally just referred to as Allie. By 1989 when this book is set Iseult was now fifteen and just as confident and precocious as her mother had been at the same age, having already been employed as a model in Paris. As for Lisa she was married to her third husband, the artist Robbie Duff Scott and they were looking for a new home in Italy, preferably large and rambling, however bearing in mind the state of their finances it also had to be pretty dilapidated.

I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria.

I gleaned these impressions through my first glances. Then, though I subsequently climbed through one of the missing windows and roamed around for nearly an hour, I was so entranced that I saw little else that I could remember with any clarity. There was a white marble staircase stretching up with cantilevered vertigo through four floors with neither balustrade nor banister against the sheer drop. There was a white marble fireplace some ten feet high in a blackened kitchen. There were two tractors, a combine harvester and a transport van all rusting in the downstairs hall.

And so the description goes on, almost all the doors were missing as well as the windows, a large part of the roof and indeed most of an exterior wall. They agreed to buy it straight away and only when then had driven away realised that they didn’t actually know where it was as the agent had taken them there as a second choice so they had no documents to tell them anything about it.

It was agreed that Lisa and the child would go to the house to supervise getting the restoration started, Robbie had to go back to Scotland to look after his terminally ill father and Allie would finish that years schooling from their apartment in Venice in the care of ‘the beauties’ two statuesque young Irish women who were employed as nannies. On arrival at the ruined building where they were going to camp as none of the rooms were actually habitable Lisa discovered that despite her careful packing of kitchen utensils, tools, coats, torches and camping equipment the child had simply replaced everything before they left with items a teenage girl deemed essential, that is lots of her impractical clothes, shoes and gallons of make-up and face-packs. As you can imagine their discovery at the house the next morning by the builder and his team they were employing to restore the villa was a real surprise to the men and it took some time to convince them that they really were the new owners. This set the tone of eccentricity the family gained in the village which was only increased by the eventual arrival of Allie and the beauties but still no man of the household which was unheard of in central Italy.

The book is extremely funny, not only in it’s description of the chaotic rebuilding of the villa over the following year but also in the way they all eventually become accepted in the village and the tales of how they got to know their neighbours. The children led the way into the hearts of the people, Iseult had a trail of admirers almost from first arriving and Allie was soon adored by the families. The beauties (we never do learn their names) also had a string of admirers not only from their looks and height (both over 6 feet tall) but also from the fact that only one of the men in the entire village could beat them at arm wrestling! Eventually Robbie arrived and they became a respectable family unit at last and what could have been just another rebuild a ruin book morphs into a charming story about life in an Umbrian village. I heartily recommend it as a great introduction to the works of Lisa St Aubin de Teran and if you do read and enjoy it I suggest Off the Rails which was written earlier as the next one to try. I will at some point reread The Hacienda which is the story of her seven traumatic years in Venezuela, maybe a project for a years time as a follow up to this blog.

Rescuing the Spectacled Bear – Stephen Fry

20200707 Rescuing the Spectacled Bear

This book was written as a diary during the filming of ‘Stephen Fry and the Spectacled Bear’ which itself was a follow up to an earlier documentary entitled ‘Paddington Bear: The Early Years’. That documentary gives a clue as to how Stephen Fry became involved in a project to highlight the problems the Spectacled Bear has in the wild. The much loved children’s book character Paddington famously came from Peru, but were there really bears in Peru? It turns out that yes there are but the question should have been, for how much longer will there be bears in Peru? So from 11th January to 5th February 2002, Fry and a team from OR Media went back to make a film about saving a couple of captive bears from appalling conditions in a tiny private zoo attached to a cafe along with two more from a zoo in Chile and also to try to film more bears in the wild. Well that was the plan anyway…

Things start to go wrong from the start due to the endemic corruption in Peru, Lima zoo had agreed several months ago to put the bears up for a few days before they were to be transported to their eventual home (see below), suddenly they stated that they had nowhere to put them and needed $4,000 to build a a cage from scratch. This is apparently a fairly normal shakedown, wait until it is impossible for the plans to be changed and then demand money which of course isn’t to build a cage but to line the pockets of the minor official who had thought of this wheeze. Fortunately part of the team was an ex Peruvian diplomat who could deal directly with the minister in charge to get this one sorted out. The people at the national park where they were going to film bears in the wild also suddenly demanded $6,000 to allow the filming; but they weren’t expecting the crew to simply say that alright then we’ll do something else. Other sums did have to be paid to at least get something for the documentary but filming bears in the wild was dropped.

The book is sad, when dealing with the plight of the bears, and you get as fed up as Stephen does with the overwhelming corruption which is determined to make achieving much to help them as difficult as possible. However there are also passages that are extremely funny, my favourite of these concerns him trying to get to sleep whilst staying at a jungle lodge, so well out of his comfort zone in more ways that one, where the noises get louder and odder as the night progresses starting with.

A moth about the size and weight of the Penguin Classics edition of Don Quixote flapped in and started circling the tilley lamp. First mistake. Swearing lightly, I pushed myself out of the netting and took the lamp out onto the porch. Creatures of the night being dark and stupid, are attracted to the light. THEN WHY THE HELL DON’T THEY COME OUT DURING THE DAY?

The photography, by Rob Fraser is superb and does full justice to this spectacular country and the amazing diversity of landscapes that it contains from jungle rivers to Andean peaks via deserts and highland forests. It is also home to a vast selection of animals including ten percent of all known bird species. If the documentary and this book can do anything to hell protect some of them then Stephen Fry’s month in the country will have been worthwhile. All his proceeds from the book are donated to the Bear Rescue Foundation.

In 2008 the team went back to Peru, only this time minus Stephen, to do a follow up documentary entitled ‘Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest’ for which Stephen provided narration. You can see the reserve near Machu Picchu where the bears they rescued ended up in the video linked below, although it was a lot more basic back in 2002.

National Geographic video of Inkaterra Andean bear Sanctuary

At the time I wrote this the follow up documentary can be seen via the link below, but presumably it may get deleted due to copyright at some point. I cannot find an example of the original films.

Spectacled Bears: Shadows of the Forest