Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It has been said that I will eat anything. This is, of course, nonsense. Medium Density Fibreboard soaked in paraffin served between two discs of foam rubber has never got me salivating (which is why I steer clear of McDonalds).

Start of chapter two

Hugh gained the sobriquet of Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All from a review of one of his books where he advocated eating as much of an animal as possible, no discarding of offal, if a pig has been killed to provide the diner with pork chops the least people can do is eat the rest of it with as little waste as can be managed. I am very much in agreement with him and regard most offal as a treat due to the flavours and textures that you would otherwise miss. I haven’t gone as far as Hugh’s keenness for brains and frankly his descriptions of the texture, which for him makes the dish, are quite off-putting to me.

This book, unlike the others I have by Hugh, is a collection of his journalism and whilst some of the articles are campaigning for various issues, especially regarding ‘nose to tail’ eating, others are very funny and even self deprecating. His own personal food business ‘River Cottage‘ barely gets a mention and whilst there are some recipes in the book they appear only rarely and always to illustrate a point in the article they are attached to. This is worth pointing out as most of his books are cookbooks, and one is my favourite which is his Meat book, nothing I have ever cooked from that book has failed to work or indeed been so complicated that I was immediately put off trying it. Having said that the journalism is a delight and being short articles it makes this a great book to dip into pretty well at random. Hugh started out as a sous chef in the kitchen of the famous River Island restaurant in Hammersmith, London but didn’t last long as a need to cut costs led to him being fired about eight months after joining them, he has never looked back, or indeed worked seriously in a professional kitchen since that date in August 1989. He moved to River Cottage in 1997 and presented his first TV series from there two years later and nowadays it is River Cottage rather than his journalism that most people think of, which is a pity because as I said earlier it’s very good.

The book is split into six sections with articles gathered thematically so for example the first part ‘Hard to Swallow’ includes pieces about McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken, bemoaning the quality of their products and the Atkins diet pointing out the dangerous side effects of that regime. There are also articles about the poor standard of food in first class on Eurostar and other other similar topics. These sound like they could be hard work to read but rather they are quite entertaining, especially when he tries to replicate a Big Mac at home. Later sections dwell on travelling to try new foods and also his home life from childhood to his current family life at River Cottage, he is a very good writer, short articles are notoriously difficult to do especially if you are also raising an important point such as intensive farming without just banging on about it. No everybody can’t live the way he does and eat fresh home produced vegetables and meat but we can try to do the best we can afford’ Hugh has the advantage of coming from a wealthy family and sometimes he can be somewhat divorced from the realities of how most people live but having said that he comes over as a very likeable person and at some point I will get down to River Cottage to do one of his cookery courses.

One thing I think that is missing is which publication the articles originally appeared in, you get the month and year but not where. He had regular columns in Punch magazine and the Evening Standard and Sunday Times newspapers so I guess most are from those but it seems a strange omission.

The Clouded Mirror – L T C Rolt

L T C Rolt, also known as Tom Rolt, was one of the best writers on industrial history and the people who made it, and not only did he write about it but he was personally involved in saving a lot of Britain’s heritage from the Industrial Revolution from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for present generations to enjoy. In 1946 he was one of the three founders of the Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to restoring and making use of the long neglected canal network that criss-crossed the UK eventually leaving in 1951, by which time he had a huge new project to work on. He was chairman of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society which he helped found in 1950 and which was planning on restoring the old Welsh slate mining railway and turning it into the major tourist destination that it is now and it was through reading as a child his excellent 1953 book ‘Railway Adventure’ about his time rescuing the Talyllyn that I first became aware of him. Rolt died in 1974 having been more responsible for the preservation of what remains of the Industrial Revolution than anyone else and on top of the two organisations I have already mentioned he was a trustee and member of the Advisory Council of the UK Science Museum, joint founder of the Association for Industrial Archaeology, vice-president of the Newcomen Society, a member of the York Railway Museum Committee and helped to form the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust amongst many other things. He wrote ‘The Clouded Mirror’ in 1955 and this edition is from The Penguin English Journeys series published in 2009.

The Clouded Mirror is actually three works in one book, the first is acually called ‘The Clouded Mirror’ and surprisingly is concerned with two poets from the 1600’s who were based in the Welsh Marches, the border country between England and Wales with Herefordshire to the east and the Black Mountains to the west. Despite having given the book its title this was extremely dull and made me wonder where the rest of the book was going.

The second part, entitled ‘Kilvert’s Country’was an improvement but still a surprise given everything I thought I knew about the author as it is largely autobiographical and deals with his young childhood from the age of four when his family moved to the outskirts of Hay on Wye. This small town is in the heart of the Welsh Marches so this link at least partly explains Rolt’s fascination with the two poets in ‘The Clouded Mirror’. I know Hay very well as it was the world’s first booktown and I have been going there for decades looking for interesting works to add to my collection. Rolt’s childhood summers from 1914 sound idyllic as he gets older and explores the surrounding countryside. He writes with his customary gentle style beautiful descriptions of the places he gets to and his father sounds like a real character, having been in Australia, South Africa and even an unsuccessful prospector during the Yukon gold rush up in north western Canada. His shooting and fishing expeditions made sure that throughout WWI the family never went short of food and Rolt says that when war finished he realised that he had barely noticed that it had been happening as Hay was so remote from anyway directly affected by the conflict.

Finally there is ‘Canal Crusade’ and this is the section that made the book all worthwhile, for me anyway. It tells some of the stories from the early days of the Inland Waterways Association with Rolt travelling up largely derelict and weed clogged canals to highlight the poor state that this important transport network had reached following decades of neglect. This is Tom Rolt at his best, campaigning and writing about industrial heritage, forcing the railway companies that largely owned the canals in the first half of the twentieth century to finally maintain what they were responsible for. It seems amazing to me now, with the excellent condition that the canals are largely in now and their considerable use by holidaymakers that the stories of silted up waterways, collapsed bridges and what seemed terminal conditions are from just seventy years ago so the Inland Waterways Association must be congratulated in its work even if a major disagreement amongst the three founders meant that only one of them was still there by 1950. Fortunately by then Rolt had the Talyllyn to occupy him.

In short the book is worth reading for the second and third pieces but I won’t bother with the first part if I pick it up to read it again.

Penguins Stopped Play – Harry Thompson

Harry Thompson was the original producer for the hit BBC TV show ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ran it for the first five series, he was also involved in several other TV programmes, there are a few short references to his TV career in the book, most notably when he managed to get people such as comic actor Hugh Dennis to turn out for his cricket team but this is not really an autobiography.It is instead a history of the cricket team he started and captained for over twenty five years. Now village cricket is not a high level sport and The Captain Scott XI, named after a person who famously came second, struggled to reach even this low bar. Initially this was deliberate on the part of several members of the team who simply wanted to lark about and had no intention of winning a game, gradually however this complete disregard for sporting etiquette meant that it became harder and harder for Thompson to find teams willing to play them. Gradually the team split into two camps and eventually into two separate teams one which continued to just lark about and the other, led by Thompson, determined to win a few games for a change.

The book starts however with a rapidly abandoned game on an Antarctic ice shelf which ironically doesn’t feature the Captain Scott XI at all but is instead an impromptu match thought up by passengers on an Antarctic cruise (including Thompson) who discover that due to excess ice they were going to be unable to get to Shackleton’s and Scott’s huts after all. Using oars from the ship as bats and a real cricket ball packed by a New Zealand passenger just in case it would be useful they start a game but presumably the echoes in the water underneath the ice shelf attracted the penguins which soon swarmed over the ‘pitch’ making play impossible leading to the oddest reason for stopping a game and the title of this book.

Before the original Captain Scott XI fell apart someone came up with the bright idea to go as a team to India to play a few matches in the hope that this would bring the increasingly fractious players together.

It sounded like a great idea; and also like a terrible mistake. It turned out to be both

The ‘tour’ started in Hong Kong as one of the ex members of the Captain Scott XI had been posted there by the bank he worked for and promised to arrange a couple of games, they would then fly back via India for a few more games before heading home a more united team. Almost none of this went to plan. As stated at the beginning English village cricket is just about as low level as you can get and still play, this standard doesn’t seem to be understood by any other country so they kept coming up against far better teams and losing spectacularly even without the sabotage several of the players indulged in. They did however play some games and get back without actually killing each other and this ‘success’ inspired Thompson to try again, this time heading for South Africa, the home country of a couple of the regular players for the team. Not only was the Captain Scott XI destined to be beaten again by much better teams who simply didn’t believe that another cricket team could be this bad but the travelling arrangements were almost impossible to make. This was the tour that finally split the team completely and ‘the layabouts’ as Thompson refers to them went off and formed a separate team.

Freed from the players that were ‘holding them back’ and flushed with the success of almost winning a couple of games Thompson came up with a clearly crazy plan, the Captain Scott XI would tour the world, and it is this trip that makes up the second half of the book. The cricket definitely gets better and they had managed another quick tour before then, just a week with only two matches in Malaysia because two of the team were half Malay which included them actually winning against the Malaysian national team, although a severely depleted version by playing on a week day when half the team would be working. Touring Barbados, Buenos Aires, Australia, Singapore and South Africa one after another on eleven round the world tickets when the British Airways system ‘gets confused’ if there is more than nine people in a group was an amazingly chaotic experience. Several times BA assured them that there were no flights from one destination to another leaving them flying thousands of miles in the wrong direction when they boarded next to a direct flight going exactly where they wanted to go, wasting time and adding to increasingly bad jet lag. Tickets kept getting refused, players arrested for having the wrong paperwork (normally whilst transiting America) and one thing they could almost always guarantee was torrential rain on arrival. It was to be the last international tour of the Captain Scott XI under Harry Thompson and the stories he tells are hilarious.

Sadly Thompson died from lung cancer aged just 45 despite never having smoked in his life, he had time to go over the final notes for this book in his last few days. This therefore becomes the third book I’ve read in as many months where the author didn’t live to see it come out after Barry Letts and Elisabeth Sladen. You don’t need to be a cricket fan, although I am, to enjoy this book, the often disastrous travel stories are what makes it a great read and you fume along with Harry at the magnificent incompetence of the British Airways flight booking service.

Lonely Planet Unpacked – Various

This collection of twenty six stories of travel disasters by some of the Lonely Planet guidebook writers can be read as a series of useful precautionary tales or just as a very entertaining book where you keep thinking I’m glad I’ve never been there. It was published in 1999 as part of the regrettably short lived Lonely Planet Journeys series and was obviously popular as the follow up volume, imaginatively entitled, Lonely planet Unpacked Again came out in 2001 this time with thirty one travel disaster stories some of which are by the authors also featured in this volume, clearly people to avoid travelling with. The obvious exception to this list of people to avoid is Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, and a man who has been everywhere so can definitely be excused the odd travel problem and in this book is merely faced by an extremely drunk Tibetan trying to get into the vehicle Tony was in by repeatedly headbutting the windscreen.

Some of the problems faced by the writers are relatively easily solved, such as with Bruce Cameron who uses a wheelchair so is rightly worried each time he arrives at a new location that he can access the bedroom and bathroom and in Tuscany this involves a very helpful landlord at the rented villa removing not only doors but the in one case the door frame and even part of a wall so that this could be achieved. Others are more concerning with Pat Yale travelling alone in Kenya who on her first day in Nairobi fell in a dark hotel corridor and broke her wrist so ending up with four weeks in plaster and heavily restricted as to what she could do. Precautionary tales include John Mock (another writer in both volumes) talking about the dangers of travelling in Pakistan and specifically the Karakoram Highway which takes you to Gilgit in the Hindukush and some amazing trekking routes. Unfortunately the KKH, as it is known, is one of the most dangerous roads in the world with regular rockfalls, an extremely narrow roadway with precipitous drops into the Indus river far below and armed locals who see closing the road as a way of getting what they want. The only alternative, at least when Mock is writing was Pakistan International Airways with their fleet of antique and barely functioning planes, he documents several trips between Gilgit and Islamabad, none of which I would be looking to be on. Amazing he never saw anyone actually crash off that road but Jennifer Brewer managed to go off the edge of a road in of all places Åland, an extremely flat island in the Baltic Sea belonging to Finland, possibly in the only part of the island such a feat could be achieved and with only 8km on her hire car tachometer.

The book bounces all over the world from China to India, various African countries but surprisingly only Brazil is representing South and Central America, a part of the world where I’ve had a couple of dodgy experiences and which I was expecting to be featured more. Sometimes the disaster is self inflicted, more often it’s encounters with other people or animals where the problems arise and for Randall Peffer who describes riding out a hurricane in Puerto Rico it just feels like the world is out to get you. The book is an easy read, I would pick it up go through a couple of the short stories and then put it back down again oh so glad that in my various out of the way journeys I’ve never had to put up with whatever I’ve just read about. Like all the Lonely Planet Journey’s books it is out of print but it, and it’s follow up, are readily available on the secondary market.

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.