The Voyage of the HMS Beagle – Charles Darwin

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

The Good Life – Dorian Amos

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I have written about The Yukon sixteen months ago whilst reviewing some of the poetry of Robert Service and that also included some of my photographs of my time there in June 1995 with a friend paddling along the Yukon river from Whitehorse the same as Dorian and his wife Bridget would do four years later almost to the day. The difference is that Dave and I were doing it for fun and would leave Yukon by the end of the month, Dorian and Bridget were aiming to live there and had no idea how they were actually going to do this. It truly is wilderness, The Yukon Territory is 186,272 miles² (482,443 km²) which makes it big enough to fit in continental European countries Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark together with room to slot in Cyprus. In all that space only 35,874 people live there (2016 census) of which 25,085 live in the capital, Whitehorse. The next biggest place is Dawson (pop. 1.375) and that is where Dave and Bridget were heading.

The book starts in 1998 in Polperro, a pretty coastal town in Cornwall, England, which is heavily dependent on tourism and fishing for its local economy. Dorian had a shop selling his pictures called Amosart and Bridget was a newly qualified psychiatric nurse, life was finally becoming easier after years of study and hard work building up a viable business, but Dorian was becoming bored and longed for some adventure in his life. Then a few months later, over an evening meal of fish and chips.

I heard her sigh “I’m sick of this shit” and I sat up with heart pounding. “Are you?” I said. “We can make a change you know.” Bridge looked at me in away she had only started to do after qualifying as a psychiatric nurse. I took the plunge and told her about my now overwhelming urge for adventure.

When I’d finished and slumped back into my chair, she said “if you think about something too much, you just talk yourself out of it and never do it. We are only here once. Let’s go get some action! Can you pass the salt please?”

Six months later Dorian was on his way to Canada, chosen mainly as they had relatives there so could get help with choosing where they wanted to be. Bridget was to follow four months after when her contract finished. The one practical thing they had done in the meantime was take a week long course on woodlore and bushcraft with survival expert Ray Mears but as he says in his introduction to the book

If I’d known then what Dorian and Bridget had in mind. I would certainly have advised further tuition in bushcraft, pointed them at expert canoe coaches and a host of other instructors.

However ignorance is bliss.

Soon after arrival in Canada Dorian purchased a truck which he nicknamed Pricey, not because it cost a lot of money but the repair bills certainly did, and started to accumulate items needed to exist in the wilderness but on a very tight budget. This meant that as tents were expensive he bought canvas to make his own and soon discovered why tents were so expensive. He also bought a dog called Boris partly as a companion and partly to protect Bridget and himself from wild animals, something that Boris proved many times over the coming months and years that he was incapable of, being more likely to hide behind them if any animals approached, assuming that he woke up anyway. Dorian writes with self deprecating humour regarding their travails in the wild open Canadian countryside and their total lack of preparedness. The trip up the Yukon after Bridget had joined him showed just how wild the country was and how much they had to learn, for example to avoid having to live on soup they were carrying with them they really needed to go fishing but neither of them had ever fished and despite buying the equipment didn’t know how to go about catching anything. The passages describing their fishing attempts are really funny and you feel their elation when weeks later they finally catch something much to their own surprise.

After getting to Dawson they turned back and explored the possibilities of living by one of the thousands of lakes closer to civilisation but found that these were already inhabited or were the play areas of people from the nearby towns so eventually decided that Dawson was the place for them. This time Bridget would go on ahead and get settled and a job whilst Dorian would stay at Bridget’s relatives and get a job there to pay for much needed repairs to Pricey and get some more equipment.  Eventually the two are together in Dawson, or at least on either side of the river as they eventually found a plot to build a cabin on opposite the town so whilst Bridget stayed in Dawson working as a waitress then as a support person for pregnant women, Dorian tried to build a cabin.

I won’t say any more about how this goes except that as you can imagine building a home from scratch when you have never attempted anything like this before, in a freezing Yukon winter (minus 20 degrees is a warm day) , on your own, largely in the dark as days are short that time of year was not a simple task. The book is full of details as to how they get along and amazingly they not only survive but thrive and Dorian is good at describing a scene so that it is easy to visualise.

The book was published by Eye Books who seem to specialise in first time authors, especially with stories to tell like this one and whilst looking to see if this book was still available found that Dorian has written a follow up where he gets ‘gold fever’ and I’ve no doubt that it is a funny as his first.

Queen of the Elephants – Mark Shand

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This book accompanies a 1995 BBC TV documentary of the same name, which I must admit I’ve never seen, but the book is fascinating. Mark Shand had made a previous trip across India on elephant back and recorded it in his book Travels on My Elephant which won him the accolade of ‘Travel Writer of the Year’ at the British Book Awards in 1992. That time he bought his own elephant Tara for the journey and at the end arranged for her to be looked after. This book starts with him visiting Tara for the first time in three years and renewing their relationship, but it is another lady that he had heard so much about whilst making that first journey that is the reason for this trip. Parbati Barua is a legend amongst people involved with the Asian elephant and she had agreed to help make a documentary about the problems they are facing due to their habitat shrinking so fast as humans encroach more and more into what used to be their territory.

Parbati is distinctly unimpressed by Mark’s previous exploit and when she agrees to take him on it is at the lowest grade in the camp, he has to earn her respect by proving (or in the case of making food rolls for the elephants trying hard but failing as he is too slow) to be good at what she expects before he can ride any elephant that belongs to her. Eventually he does get approval and then a certain limited level of respect as he demonstrates his hard learnt abilities from his last trip. Parbati is not easily pleased and this is something he learns very quickly.

At this point I need to bring up my main problem with the book, lots of local words (presumably Hindi) are used which may have been explained in his previous volume and which it takes a while to work out their meaning (assuming you don’t just google them from frustration) if like me you haven’t read it. Either a better explanation at the time they are first used in this work, or a glossary at the back, would have vastly improved the readability of the text. There is a comprehensive bibliography so the omission of a glossary is all the more surprising.

The three month journey that they undertake through West Bengal to Assam was once heavily forested but now is home to apparently endless tea plantations and the Asian elephant, being a creature of the forests unlike it’s African cousin, is being pushed into conflict with the ever expanding human population. As well as the trip with Parbati, Mark also spends some time with a group charged with keeping the two sides apart and sees at first hand the tragic consequences for both elephant and human when this boundary is breached. Parbati is frequently sent for by forest rangers to assist elephants injured by people just as they also come across humans that have been killed by elephants desperate for food and coming into villages where the locals try, and often fail, to persuade them to leave so annoying a huge and powerful animal. You hear so much about the plight of the African elephant it is fascinating to see what is happening to the Asian version not just in India but across the region.

Mark Shand was the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and sadly died on the 23rd April 2014 after a fall in New York. He was leaving a party following a highly successful evening which had raised £950,000 for his elephant charity when he tripped and hit his head on the pavement. Parbati Barua is, at the time of writing, apparently still alive and well and working with elephants.

Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…

 

McCarthy’s Bar – Pete McCarthy

The eight rule of travel states: “Never Pass A Bar That Has Your Name On It”

For someone with roots in the west of Ireland, even though he was born in England, McCarthy spent a lot of time during his childhood in Ireland and was familiar with just how ubiquitous the McCarthy name was in the west and so how many bars there were with his name. As this is being posted on New Years Eve being in a bar is an ideal subject.

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A little background on Pete McCarthy first, he originally made his name as a comedian but where I first came across him was as the presenter of Travelog, a Channel 4 (UK television) quirky travel programme which started in 1990 and then from his numerous appearances on BBC Radio 4 shows both comedy and travel based. Sadly he died of cancer in 2004 aged only 52 and left us just two books to enjoy his gently humorous writing. McCarthy’s Bar was the first and was published in 2000, my copy is the paperback from 2001. The book starts on St Patrick’s Day and “McCarthy’s Bar was heaving”, he goes on to describe not only his own steadily more drunken state but that of the very international clientele of pub and his growing realisation that he really felt Irish, the punchline at the end of the chapter is typically Pete McCarthy.

Outside I stood under the green neon shamrock and looked up at the sign. ‘McCarthy’s’ it said. ‘Hungary’s top Irish pub’.

I turned up my collar. Budapest can still be quite chilly in March.

Sod this I thought. Next year I’ll go to Ireland.

Sadly McCarthy’s in Budapest no longer exists, but it is commemorated by the fact that next year he did go to Ireland and provided this wonderfully funny and also at time deeply thought provoking book as he sees how Ireland has changed since he was there as a child each summer holiday on the family farm, whilst visiting as many bars called McCarthy’s as he could find. There are two trips covered in the book, the first one uses a hire car for a week to set up a much longer trip using a beaten up old Volvo which he buys in England for less than the cost of hiring the original car for the week, cue a very funny passage which deals with the trials, tribulations and surprising hidden costs of hiring a car.

By the trip with the Volvo he has got into his stride with the style of the book and he also has a plan beyond the original premise of just travelling which is to finish with a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory a notoriously difficult three days of fasting and prayer on an island in a lake in County Donegal. There is no real explanation as to why he chooses to do this, visiting all the pubs with your name on them makes sense as a plan for a trip round Ireland but as to why he wants to do the three days at the end not even McCarthy seems clear with the reasoning other than he picked up the leaflet about it and decided to go.

Another series of locations soon become obvious in the narrative, McCarthy is fascinated by the multitude of ancient stone circles and other monuments that litter the countryside in Ireland and regular diversions are planned to visit them between evenings (and quite often nights) in the various pubs. He examines the uneven way Ireland has become wealthy from the mid 1990’s with the Celtic Tiger boom and the huge increase in tourism outside of Dublin that has come with it, so there is a lot more to the book than simply funny stories. However there are plenty of those and one of my favourites concerns the town of Bunratty and the castle with the Folk Park. The park includes various buildings created to represent Irish history and a ‘pub’ called Durty Nellies where it turns out that at night the locals go to so as to avoid all the tourists that now fill their traditional bars. Creating the odd situation that the real pubs in town cater for the tourists and the fake pub in the theme park, which is aimed at tourists, is where you will find the actual locals at least after the park is officially closed anyway.

There are several laugh out loud sections and I loved the short passage on his trip to Killarney racecourse which he went to on the advice of his severely out of date guide which was written by William Makepeace Thackeray a hundred and fifty years earlier.

At the end of an astonishing long line of bookies is a chap called McCarthy. I go straight over and put £5 at five to one on a horse whose name closely resembles a TV executive I’d like to see run two and a half miles jumping fences while a fierce little Irish bloke whipped him.

The horse lost, but it’s a good story. That also applies to all the other stories in the book even including the three days on Station Island in Lough Derg where he manages to inject humour into purgatory.

The pub doorway featured on the cover is that of MacCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere, County Cork owned and run by Adrienne MacCarthy, the ‘a’ drops in and out of spelling Mac quite frequently in both Ireland and Scotland. However the sign was photoshopped for the cover to reflect the spelling of Pete’s surname. The nun by the way is not really in holy orders but one of the barmaids dressed up for the photoshoot. There is a really good write up about the real bar and the effect it had and continues to have on the business in the Irish Times from December 2014.

Sailing to Freedom – Voldemar Veedam & Carl B. Wall

This beautiful volume was a gift from a friend in Estonia and tells the tale of sixteen people escaping from the Russians after the annexation of their country post WWII. This edition of the book was published as part of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence in 2018 and includes a preface by the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Sadly that initial period of independence was snuffed out by the start of World War II with first the Russians then the Germans and finally the Russians again taking control, Estonia would not be independent again until the 20th August 1991. Estonians therefore celebrate two Independence Days, the 23rd February marking the first time they were their own state back in 1918 and the 20th August for the current and longest period of independence the country has had in the centuries it has existed.

During the early 1940’s the Russians instigated mass deportations of ethnic Estonians to Siberia and the majority of those sent there never survived to get back to their own country. To escape these deportations many Estonians sailed across the Baltic to Sweden where they were largely held in camps amongst these escapees were the heroes of this book. They were faced with yet another problem at the end of the war as Sweden was set to send the Estonians back to their own country and Soviet control.  In March 1945 Voldemar Veedam was sitting with his friend Harry Paalberg when the first of the letters from the Swedish foreign ministry were received by the refugees informing them that they were to be returned and the Soviets has assured the Swedish government that they would be safe. Needless to say the refugees in Sweden didn’t believe the Soviet assurances and it turned out to be a correct supposition as tens of thousands more Estonians were sent to their doom in Siberia during the 1950’s.

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And so the plan was hatched between Voldemar and Harry to escape, this time from Sweden and try to get to the USA. They would need a boat and a few more people to man it and also help raise the money needed for the trip; this was going to be difficult enough never mind the gruelling ocean voyage. Money was tight and they couldn’t get more from family abroad as Swedish law severely limited the amount that could be sent to the refugees. In the end they managed to purchase a 36½ foot long (11.1m) by 13 foot wide (4m) sloop called Erma and an erratic diesel engine, but only by taking so many people into the escape attempt that the crew numbered twelve adults and four children. Working out how to get all those people on board with sufficient provisions and still be able to sail was a logistical nightmare. So much so that one of the recurring themes is the amazement of bystanders whenever they did manage to make it to a port as to how so many people were aboard. When they bought her Erma was over fifty years old and had been out of the water for years so leaked badly when she was refloated.

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There was a massive amount of work needed to make Erma seaworthy and this took far longer than any of them hoped even with four men working up to sixteen hours a day rebuilding the boat to be able to get everyone on board. So much so that instead of the hoped for summer departure it drifted into the autumn and meant that they ended up crossing the Atlantic during November and December.  This undoubtedly increased the amount of bad weather they hit during the crossing and caused a lot of the delays which hit their rations hard. It really is a magnificent tale of daring-do and remarkable seamanship that they managed to get all the way making repairs to their tiny vessel whilst on the way.

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When the book came out it appears from some of the blurbs reproduced from the old book covers that the trip was compared with that of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl and his crew on the Kon-Tiki expedition whose book had been published a few years earlier. Somewhat unfairly I feel as his was a well funded trip (along with equipment from the US Army) with no pressure on him other than to prove his own theories. The sixteen people on the Erma had no such backup and made an amazing trip out of desperation to avoid the Soviet oppression in their homeland. I’m amazed that I haven’t come across this book before especially as it was clearly an international best seller in the 1950’s but checking on Amazon it appears that it is no longer in print apart from the edition I have now read which despite being in English does not appear to be available here. Thank you Christel for a fantastic gift which I have greatly enjoyed reading.

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The cover of the first UK paperback edition

The copy I have was published by Eesti Mälu Instituut, The Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, and a beautiful job they have made of it. The colourised photos from the trip, a couple of which are reproduced above, are wonderfully atmospheric and the inclusion of lots of covers of previous editions appeals to me as a book collector as well as showing just how popular this book has been around the world. Surprisingly, to me at least, the book was originally written in English by Veedam with the assistance of Carl B Wall who was an American journalist. It was first published in a much shorter form as The Cruise of the Erma in the February 1947 edition of Readers Digest and subsequently expanded in 1952 to the text that is now used. The front cover photo was taken from the American patrol boat John P. Gray soon after they had found the Erma and re-provisioned them for the final few days journey to an American port and journeys end.

Below are some more international translations, including ones on the right where the cover designer has clearly not read the book and has no idea what sort of boat Erma actually was.

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The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

Sentimental Journey – Laurence Sterne

To give the book its full (and misleading) title “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. Why misleading, well in the copy I read, which is 161 pages long, by page 143 he is still in Paris having travelled there from Calais on page 1, after that there is a rapid dash as far as Lyon which is where the book ends. Sterne undoubtedly intended to continue the tale in a further volume, as he had done numerous times with his much more famous novel regarding ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ which eventually ran to nine volumes, but he died just three weeks after this book was first published in 1868.

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I have two copies of this book on my shelves, both there due to them being parts of separate book collections rather than a desire to own a copy of the novel but it did feel that it was time to tackle the book as it is regarded as a classic of English literature. That this is so is attested by the fact that the Folio Society edition I have read is only the fourteenth title produced by that publisher and came out in 1949. The other copy I have is from 1938 and was part of the ten books published by Penguin as Illustrated Classics which were their first attempt at a series of illustrated books, just three years after they started publishing. That two major publishers should select it so early in their existence suggests how much both companies rated the book and both editions are beautiful. The Folio Society copy is illustrated by Nigel Lambourne in lovely drawings that match well his cover design, see the picture of Maria further down this essay. The Penguin edition, in common with the other nine volumes published simultaneously, uses wood engravings in this case by a master of that art form Gwen Ravarat.

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And so to the tale itself… Well I have to admit that of all the books I have read so far for this blog this was the one I struggled with the most. Even though it is quite short (less than forty thousand words) it has taken over three weeks to read it as I kept putting it down after a few pages. Both the Maupassant short stories and The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon have been read and written about whilst I worked my way through A Sentimental Journey. There are two main reasons for this, firstly I couldn’t get on with Sterne’s style of writing and secondly it really needs a significantly better knowledge of French than I have so I have had to pause to translate sections before continuing if I really wanted to make sense of the narrative especially in the case of a letter which is important to the story but which is entirely in French. A random sample of the text, where Yorick (Sterne’s alter ego in the story) employs a servant is below.

La Fleur had set out early in life, as gallantly as most Frenchmen do, with serving for a few years; at the end of which, having satisfied the sentiment, and found, moreover, That the honour of beating a drum was likely to be its own reward, as it open’d no further track of glory to him,—he retired à ses terres, and lived comme il plaisoit à Dieu;—that is to say, upon nothing.

—And so, quoth Wisdom, you have hired a drummer to attend you in this tour of yours through France and Italy!—Psha! said I, and do not one half of our gentry go with a humdrum compagnon du voyage the same round, and have the piper and the devil and all to pay besides?  When man can extricate himself with an équivoque in such an unequal match,—he is not ill off.—But you can do something else, La Fleur? said I.—O qu’oui! he could make spatterdashes, and play a little upon the fiddle.—Bravo! said Wisdom.—Why, I play a bass myself, said I;—we shall do very well.  You can shave, and dress a wig a little, La Fleur?—He had all the dispositions in the world.—It is enough for heaven! said I, interrupting him,—and ought to be enough for me.—So, supper coming in, and having a frisky English spaniel on one side of my chair, and a French valet, with as much hilarity in his countenance as ever Nature painted in one, on the other,—I was satisfied to my heart’s content with my empire; and if monarchs knew what they would be at, they might be as satisfied as I was.

Another problem I had was the references to Tristram Shandy (which I have not read) including a whole section near the end of the book where Yorick goes off to comfort one of the characters from that novel thereby further muddying the narrative of this supposed travellers tale unnecessarily.

alas! I have but a few small pages left of this to crowd it into,—and half of these must be taken up with the poor Maria my friend, Mr. Shandy, met with near Moulines.

The story he had told of that disordered maid affected me not a little in the reading; but when I got within the neighbourhood where she lived, it returned so strong into the mind, that I could not resist an impulse which prompted me to go half a league out of the road, to the village where her parents dwelt, to enquire after her.

’Tis going, I own, like the Knight of the Woeful Countenance in quest of melancholy adventures.  But I know not how it is, but I am never so perfectly conscious of the existence of a soul within me, as when I am entangled in them.

The picture of the distraught Maria from the Folio edition is below.

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Enough of the negatives however, I persevered with the book rather than abandoning it because hidden behind the irritating (at least to me) overly stylistic writing is actually a pretty good story if only the first part of it. Laurence Sterne had indeed travelled through France and Italy in 1765, which was a couple of years after the Seven Years War had ended and he sets the story with Yorick making a similar trip but earlier so the conflict is actually still in progress. That it has no impact on his ability to travel through the country other than the need to get a passport authorising the journey, something Yorick had neglected to do before setting out thereby creating part of the story as he endeavours to obtain such a document before the police catch up with him, is surprising to modern readers. Although the title implies that this is a travel book do not expect any descriptions of places, rather it is a tale of his interactions with the people he meets, especially the ladies, and that is what makes it A Sentimental Journey.

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If you wish to read the novel for free then it is available on Project Gutenberg by following this link.