Quick Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron.

Thubron’s short 2011 book is an account of a trek from Nepal, through mountain passes heading north east and into Tibet. His ultimate destination is Mount Kailas, a mountain which is (according to the blurb of this book) “holy to one fifth of humanity”. The goal for pilgrims there (mainly Hindu and Bhuddist) is to circle the mountain.

I don’t think Thubron is either a Hindu or a Bhuddist, so why is he on this journey? “I am doing on account of the dead”, he writes early on. Following the death of his mother, he finds himself the last one living of his immediate family, and feels the need to go on a journey, which seems part of his way of trying to overcome (or at least come to an accommodation with) the sense of grief. Why Mount Kailas? “In the end,” he continues later in the same passage, “you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others. The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.”

The book is all the better for being realtively short, I think. I found it to be at its best when he is describing the journey itself and touching on his recollections of his family. There are no very lengthy passages of autobiography in this book, however, and I think that this is something of a shame, since it is at these points that Thubron’s writing is at its most poignant and resonant. For instance, one memorable passage sees him describing going through his mother’s possessions after her death, particularly old letters. There is also a very brief passage alluding to his sister’s early death at the age of 21 which is very affecting and raw.

I would have liked more of these personal reflections threaded all the way through the book. However, I got the feeling that they petered out somewhat from about halfway in, as he neared Mount Kailas. I think that this makes the book is slightly uneven,since the personal angle gradually gives way to the more familiar travel writing template of quoting choice bits of conversation from people met along the way, as well as descriptions of the journey, picking a particular thing seen or told about, and then going into wider contextual detail that may touch on religion, folklore, politics, history and the like.

This is all very well, and have no doubt that Thubron is a master of this style of travel writing. However, it is (dare I say) a tad dry and journalistic compared to the more personal (and hence engaging) aspects of the book where he writes about his personal history and the complex inter-relationship this has with this particular flight into the unknown. Normally his precise descriptions and lightly-worn erudition would be more than enough on their own (see his book In Siberia for instance for a masterclass of this style of travel writing). It is just that in the case of To a Mountain in Tibet he gets onto a different level of insight altogether for my money, ironically by writing about personal matters closer to home, and juxtaposing these with the foreign physical and spiritual climes in which he finds himself.

However, this remains a very worthwhile book and one I would highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

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Quick Review: “A Small Place in Italy” (1994) by Eric Newby

Author Eric Newby (1919- 2006) is one of the more notable twentieth english travel writers. I have long been aware of his name, but up to now I hadn’t read any of his books. When I saw a copy of A Small Place in Italy  in a charity shop I bought it to see what I made of Newby.

The first point to make is that this isn’t a travel book as such, or at least it’s not an account of a journey. Instead it’s a memoir of the Italian holiday home that Newby and his wife Wanda owned between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s.

So the book is an account of life in this farmhouse that they owned, situated in the hills in the region on the Tuscan/ Ligurian border.

‘Colourful’ Italian characters and descriptions of rural life abound. Standout passages include a description of how the Newbys sought out and bought the house in the first place; an account of how they knocked the house into shape; and Newby’s account of his walk among the Appenines.

To be honest, I found that some of the longer descriptions of rural life (such as the grape harvest) were interesting enough but went on a bit too long. Indeed, the book starts of as a roughly chronological account of how they bought and did the place up in the 60s. After the first few chapters, though, that it gets more general, and the book becomes a series of vignettes and character sketches, intended no doubt to give a general flavour of what life there was like.

But the book retains its charm. I suppose it’s worth remembering the publishing context from the early 90s. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a massive publishing hit, and second home ownership among Britains looking for a place on the Continent was on the rise. Tuscany was also becoming something of a holiday magnet for the British middle class. So no doubt A Small Place in Italy was aimed at that general market.

However, it stands on its own merits as a book that would make a decent read for someone wanting to get away from it all, transported by a writer who is never less than excellent company. The final sale and taking leave of their Italian idyll was clearly a great wrench for the Newbys and so this book reads exactly as what it was: an attempt to remember and portray the good times and the good life,  and a good-natured labour of love.

 

Verdict: Not the place to start if you’re a Newbie ‘noob’. If you want to get a feel for why he’s considered one the best English travel writers start elsewhere. Otherwise, though, this is a charming and pleasant book.

 

Some thoughts on Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Broken Road.

plf

“Get on with it man!” (Believe it or not Patrick Leigh Fermor also enjoyed writing breaks in between smoking cigarettes and admiring the view from the terrace of his Greek home). 

 

I actually read The Broken Road a long while ago, and in best Leigh Fermor tradition I first sat on, then forgot, this draft of a review, which then turned into a mini essay.

Published (dare I say ‘in tearing haste’ to paraphrase the title of a book co-authored by Leigh Fermor) soon after his 2011 death, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s [PLF] The Broken Road rounds off a trilogy of books that form his account of a walk across the Continent, from Rotterdam to Istanbul (which he refers to as Constantinople throughout), undertaken as a young man in the 1930’s.

On reflection, it seems that the walk was the easy bit. It was writing it up years later that proved to be the almost insurmountable physical and mental effort.

The trilogy devoted to the walk is comprised of A Time of Gifts (1977), Between the Woods and Water (1986), and the final (and in a sense ad hoc volume) The Broken Road (2013). I say ad hoc because ‘Volume Three’ as it was known during his lifetime was one of the most famous literary works in progress in the world. What you can now freely obtain from any bookshop or library was not what PLF intended should be published at all. Instead it is a draft written in the early sixties, partially corrected at great effort very late in his life, and cross referenced with one of his surviving notebooks from the 1930s.  He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction in his lifetime, despite the wishes of his many readers and, no doubt, to the equal  sadness and perhaps annoyance of his publishers. It seems its troubled gestation was a source of frustration and regret for the author too. However, while his failure to complete it was no doubt a source of anguish to him and his nearest and dearest, it seems that missed deadlines and indecision were something of a recurring theme in his writing life.

One of the most telling (and unintentionally amusing) things I found in Artemis Cooper’s biography of PLF (which also appeared swiftly after his death) was the tale of how in the 1960’s he was approached by the editor of a book on World War II for an article about the war in Crete (this could have been the account of how he kidnapped the German General in command of the island, I can’t recall now). Either way, the editor of said book initially asked for an account of a few thousand words and had a set deadline. PLF agreed, but the account apparently sprawled and sprawled. The deadline loomed. The take (literally) grew in the telling.Reminders were sent. The deadline loomed and more reminders were sent.  The editor (probably literally)  tore his hair out and finally the deadline passed. The piece was never published, the editor sent one last chastening letter and PLF, I assume, never received his cheque.

Speaking frankly, one thing I think that Cooper’s biography fails to do is to give much of an isight into Leigh Fermor the writer, or to explain much about his books and how they tick.  To be fair, the evidence suggests this wasn’t her brief anyway. The biography sketches the main events of his life (except for a detailed two-chapter look at the derring-do of kidnapping the German General who was acting as governor of Crete), and the result is an easy reading but ‘lop-sided’ biography of the kind normally associated with pop stars and footballers, where the focus is firmly on events that took place earlier on in life because that’s where the ‘action’ is.  So the biography rattles along in large part because PLF lived in large part a rattlingly good life. It would have taken a writer of unique incompetence to turn what was, in several though not all respects, a ‘silk purse’ of a life into a ‘sow’s ear’ of a book.

I stress this point about the books, however, because PLF was a short time a solider but a long time a writer. If he is to survive for posterity, I’d stick my neck out and say that it’ll be because of his written work rather than for the fact that he had a ‘good war’ as the old cliche goes. So while Cooper is equal to the task of outlining his life story, she doesn’t go into too much detail about PLF the writer, how his books developed, how they work or what made the books so worthy of the following they got during his life. Crucially, I don’t think she ever really gets close to committing herself to an answer as to why this very talented and intelligent man simply could not finish the book which he called “Volume Three” (i.e. what has been published as The Broken Road), a book which I think must have been something of an Albatross around his neck.  I’m sure there is an answer to this last question, but perhaps decorum or a sense of loyalty to a man who was, after all, a close family friend, made her keep her own silence on the true nature of this. Of course there’s always the distinct possibility that she didn’t feel it right to ask, or that she tried but PLF wasn’t telling.

Anyway, at least the foreword to The Broken Road makes one thing clear, which is that he did make one last heroic effort to rework the manuscript late on in life even though the odds were well against him. The sad thing is that in my opinion he was sitting on a perfectly good book all along, and The Broken Road more than stands up to scrutiny against volume one and two. PLF undoubtedly set out to write prose that caught the eye, fired the imagination and (when read aloud or read carefully so that you could ‘hear’ it in your mind) would impress the reader both with its own brilliance but also the vividness of its imagery. When he’s in this mode he can be very effective. At other times the prose is off-puttingly purple. It’s interesting to note that in his earlier books (such as The Traveller’s Tree and A Time to Keep Silence from the 50’s) this flashy tendency is kept in check, the verbal fireworks sparking at regular intervals but normally limited to an arresting phrase here or there, or carefully kept in reserve for  set-piece descriptions of things that were especially worthy of note. Later on, his tendency to make sure almost every sentence was a finely wrought as possible would take over. A lot of the time it is to the benefit of his books, but at others I think there’s a tendency to get things out of proportion and let the prose get too elaborate to retain much control. For instance, there’s a passage in A Time of Gifts describing the Abbey of Melk which I personally find all but unreadable, and believe me I have tried several times.

All writers go about their job in slightly different ways, particularly when it comes to revising and reworking.  If I can generalise for a moment, there are some who see the process of revision as absolutely crucial, as if paring things down and choosing the right words was what enabled them to say what they really meant all along. I get the impression with PLF that things went the other way. For him, it was a process of accumulating words on the page that would allow him to get to the truth. Like Henry James, it seems that he wanted to say everything he possibly could about something as his means of  revealing the truth. This need to explore every angle, together with much agonising over finding the right word every time, must have placed a hell of a burden on him. Again, something from Cooper’s book which is very telling comes in the endpapers of the hardback edition, where she reproduces examples of some of the proofs from PLF’s work. She explains how his publisher, John Murray, would say that these proofs, with the countless revisions and additions made by PLF, explained the long gaps between his published books. If we’re looking for another simile to describe his method of composition, he seems to have been the literary equivalent of the men who used to ceaselessly paint the Forth Bridge. No sooner had one draft finished then he’d go back and have to start all over again.

In contrast to these works from the 70s and 80s, The Broken Road is effectively mid-period Leigh Fermor. As stated, the majority of the book consists of a typescript produced in the early 1960’s, so it stands somewhere between the simpler prose of his earlier post-war books and the later elaborate creation of the 70’s and 80s. What unites the two kinds of writer he was is his fundamental approach: at the core of his books are narratives of journeys undertaken, places visited and people met.  But over this he overlays numerous passages that amplify and elucidate the history and culture of the lands that he travelled through. As has been mentioned many times before, PLF was a polymath, and one of the many ‘well fancy that’ gems of knowledge to be found in The Broken Road is a convincing etymology and cultural history of the english word ‘buger’.

The book doesn’t lose anything at all in my opinion for not having been finely wrought to the nth degree. There are still some interesting verbal fireworks (many readers point to the description of migrating birds in The Broken Road as a highlight). True to form there’s also a passage that I found almost unbearably overwritten and annoying (a supposed encounter in a shoreline cave with some people, which turned into a most acrobatic sounding kind of knees-up). In the main, however, the descriptions are precise, the characterisation is believable, the eye for detail is telling,  and the gift for anecdote is very entertaining.

Perhaps the real highlight for me was the diary from Leigh Fermor’s time spent on Mount Athos, where he travelled after spending a little time in his original intended journey’s end of Istanbul. The prose in the diary entries is a lot plainer, but no less vivid. I believe that this section was reworked by the older man, but he had the judgment not to drown out the written voice of his younger self. The result is a direct and vivid piece of writing which paints a clear picture of a unique place.

Finally a note on the title. Far be it for me to tell the editors they’re wrong, but I’ve never thought that The Broken Road was that fitting. The only things ‘broken’ about this book is the narrative, which through circumstance cuts off abruptly. Saving that, it’s a remarkably cohesive, charming and straightforward account of how a plucky young individual, after an uncertain school career back in England, decided to do something completely different and reinvented himself. Dare I say it but something a little less symbolic and more descriptive (a la “Between the Woods and Water”) or even a quote from a favourite poems of PLF’s might have served better (“A Time of Gifts” is taken from Louis MacNeice. Was there nothing from Byron, who PLF was reading on this final leg of his journey, that would have worked?).

At any rate, ultimately the road is not ‘broken’ but ‘vanished’. As many others have pointed out before, aside from their strength as descriptive travel books and autobiography, PLF’s trilogy is right up there along with books like Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday, as wonderfully evocative books about a Europe and a rich collective culture and varied social fabric that remains in the memory but which has gone forever.

 

A review of “Dreaming of Jupiter” by Ted Simon.

Summary: 25 years after he first set off around the world on a bike, Ted Simon goes off at the age of 70 to do it all again, this time on a BMW. But the result is still a Triumph. 

Dreaming of Jupiter is a must read for anyone who has read Jupiter’s Travels (I reviewed it here), Ted Simon’s classic account of how he spent 4 years going around the world on a motorbike in the mid-1970s. In large part this later book takes its prompts from the earlier one by trying to answer the essential question: just how much has the world changed in the intervening time?

This time around Simon had family ties to bear in mind, so instead of 4 years, this second journey took a ‘mere’ 2 and half. That’s still no mean feat at any stage of life, but at 70 that’s still noteworthy.

The main difference between this book and its predecessor is that it has a far brisker and more businesslike tone to it. It’s inevitable that if you’re going somewhere again for a second time, then you’re going to want to find out what’s remained the same, whether your memories still bear any resemblance to the reality, and whether any of the people you met first time around are still where you encountered them first time around and still  remember you. The desire to answer questions like these give the book a sort of spine and plenty of ‘drive’ as it were.

While the narrative never becomes unbalanced by the inevitable jaded views in the face of irrevocable and inevitable change, there are points where Simon readily admits that his disappointment overwhelmed him. In Phuket in Thailand, for example, his memories of the paradise it was in the 70’s jarred terribly with the sight of the crowded and commercialised resort it has become. Bureaucracy is another complaint he has compared to the relatively straightforward nature of crossing borders back in the 70s (although this was never that simple in all cases if the original book is anything to go by). Sitting in an Indian customs office trying to arrange for his bike to be airfreighted to Turkey, Simon admits to wanting the journey over right there and then, so ground down was he by the endless form filling and buck passing.

These remain isolated moments, though. As with his account of the first journey, Simon concentrates on the stand-out experiences that he had along the way, and these seem to have been overwhelmingly good. Above all there are a number of very warm and heartening descriptions of meeting up again with people he’d met the first time around, a good number of whom it seems were inspired by their meeting with this inspirational stranger on a motorbike.

There are of course also plenty of new people he meets along the way second time around, many of whom enter the picture when Simon is in need of help. Modern BMW’s are no more immune than their 70’s Triumph counterparts to the hammering that the varied roads of the world can dish out, and there are the familiar accounts of difficulties with the bike and the terrain. For good measure Simon also managed to break bones on two separate occasions on his second trip.

To re-enforce the notion of perhaps the most significant way the world has changed politically in the intervening decades, as recurring motif towards the end of the book sees Simon describe watching the TV at some of the places he stops towards the end of the trip, watching CNN chart the build up to the second Bush/ Blair driven invasion of Iraq.

The final chapter and the epilogue of this book is well worth pondering in detail, in order to get the thoughts and reflections of this well-travelled, urbane and wise man. In Simon’;s case, travel undoubtedly seems to have broadened the mind, but it has narrowed his focus as to what ails the mankind and the planet. Overall he seems to be saying that as a race we seem to lurch from one disaster to another and seem collectively determined to reach the final end which is our own (and the planet’s) oblivion.

But- and it remains a very big but- he retains faith in the goodness and essential helpfulness of people, as shown in the many good and kind people he has met on both journeys around the world.

On a lighter note, I can confirm that this book is every bit as dangerous as Jupiter’s Travels, in that it will make you want to go out and get a motorbike licence if you haven;’t got one already, just in case you ever get chance to travel in Jupiter’s tyre tracks.

Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.

 

William Burroughs’s most entertaining book? A review of Letters 1945-59.

The letters in this book- written mostly to Allen Ginsberg with some to other notable recipients like Jack Kerouac and Brion Gysin scattered among them- are amongst some of the most entertaining and well written by any writer that I’ve come across.

They cover a key period in Burroughs’s life, commencing in the mid 40s when he was trying to make a go of being a family man and a farmer. Odd to think of this latter day scourge of authority and conservatism worrying about how much his carrot and cotton crops will fetch, but he did all the same. Then comes the move to Mexico, the fatal ‘William Tell routine’ gone wrong when he shot his wife Joan, and the years of addiction and wandering, first through South America, and then to the Continent and North Africa.  All of this is fully documented here, at length and in fascinating detail.

If you want to learn more about what made Burroughs the man and the writer he was, and how his later world view developed, I think a lot of the answers are in these letters. Certainly without the letters I don’t think he could have been the writer he was. In fact on a very real level I don’t think he would have progressed as a writer at all without these letters as the initial spur to get his thoughts out and onto the page. They were his lifeline- at one stage he comments on how much he needs an audience, and for a long time Ginsberg and Kerouac fulfilled this role- at a time when he was effectively serving his writing apprenticeship, looking for things to write and still without an audience. The letters effectively kept him going and gave him a chance to develop. Also, we see his world view change and mature and by the end of this book we’ve seen him come to terms with his status as an outsider.

From would-be farmer worrying about how much his crops will yield, to a fully-fledged avant-garde artist in 15 years is pretty good going, Along the way there’s a lot of hardship, a lot of moaning about his lot and above all some genuinely funny passages. You can gain a lot from reading these letters in their own right, and if you’ve always been left cold by Burroughs or put off him, they will help you understand a lot more about why he wrote as he did and where his particular sardonic take on the world came from.

In a similar vein, the William Burroughs ‘reader’ called Word Virus is well worth a look.

In effect, this is Burroughs for slackers and lazy readers like me. I have had my copy for a fair while now, and I still regularly dip into it. While I think he’s a great writer, I have to admit that most of his work after Naked Lunch is a bit of a trial to get through. For example, whole novels written via the cut-up method are just too much for me to wade through, I’m afraid, even though I will readily admit that it can be a really exciting and often illuminating way of writing.

This is why this anthology is so valuable, in that it gives you tasters of everything of note he ever published. There is some stunning work in here, including samples of the very readable 1950s letters mentioned above, excerpts from early works like Junky and Queer, and also excerpts from Naked Lunch. There are also some stand alone gems collected in the book, like the chilling “Last Words” and also “Remembering Jack Kerouac”, a heartfelt and wise memoir of his friend and colleague, which manages to reveal a great deal about Burroughs himself, as well as his whole psychological approach to writing.

An extra bonus the extended biographical notes that link each section. These not only explain a lot of the work and put it into context, but they also fill you in on the key points of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary writing life.

This is perhaps all the Burroughs you will ever need, at least until you pluck up courage to get to grips with the individual texts in their entirety.

 

 

Travels back in time.

Some travel books are considered great because they capture the essence of a place. Other travel books are worth going back to because they freeze time. They capture moments spent in places which have changed or may have gone forever, and this is something to value for its own sake in a world which continues to change apace. 

A case in point is Michael Palin’s characteristically engaging book Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published to tie in with his late-80’s TV series of the same name. I loved that programme when it was first shown, but I only read the accompanying book for the first time a couple of weeks ago.  Reading it, I was struck by how quickly the world has changed, even in less than 25 years. To pick two examples from many, Dubai when he was there was not the developed desert megacity it is now. And early on in the journey Palin took the ferry from Venice to Alexandria, via the Corinth Canal and Crete. You can still get the same ferry- in theory at least- but the route has altered to take in a stop in Syria. Needless to say the service is suspended until further notice.

This brings me on to another travel book I read a couple of years ago.

“From the Holy Mountain” by William Dalrymple is a decent read. However, I found it very hard going at times. With hindsight, though, the things that exasperated me about it could now be seen as strengths of a sort, given the ongoing civil war in Syria and general unrest in the region.  The narrative framework for this book is provided by a Byzantine monk, John Moschos, who travelled throughout the Eastern Roman Empire from Mount Athos in Greece, through Turkey and the middle east, and ending in Egypt. These modern states all cover the territories held at one point or another  by the Byzantine empire, and as such they form the ancient heartlands of Christianity.

In undertaking his journey, Dalrymple was keen to find out what echoes of the past could still be caught in these former Byzantine states. He also sought to reveal the current state of Christians and Christianity in the area. At its best I found the book enlightening, particularly good in those passages dealing with southern Turkey, the Armenian people and Syria. Up to around page 300, I found the author was able to maintain the balancing act between giving an account of his journey, sketching the historical background and letting the Christians he met along the way tell their own story. However, despite the blurb on the jacket of my copy, this is NOT a consistently “witty” or “funny” book. While Dalrymple is an agreeable guide, I didn’t find his attempts at humour particularly strong or well judged. Besides which the tale he unfolds is, by and large, a consistently sad one, telling of persecution, suffering and mutual misunderstanding between peoples, religions and governments.

Dalrymple at his best turns a vivid phrase. On the other hand his approach errs towards being lumpen and over-detailled and he can be long-winded. For instance, while he clearly spoke to a lot of people along the way, every encounter seems to be rendered verbatim. Similarly, while the copious bibliography proves that the author has done his background reading, this often results in clumps of factual details choking the narrative (instances like the two page diversion on the significance of St George to various nations had me wishing he’d just get on with it). At times like these Dalrymple doesn’t wear his learning lightly: he is one of those who keeps it on at all times like an anorak.

In hindsight, however, it’s perhaps as well that some of the more lengthy interviews were spared the editor’s blue pencil. As things get ever more vicious, especially in Syria, it could be that this book becomes one more useful point of reference for anyone wanting to know how some people in the region got by in the last few years before events took their most recent turn.