Tagtravel writing

Brazilian Sketches by Rudyard Kipling

KiplingBrazilThere’s a new publisher in town: Abandoned Bookshop, an imprint founded by Scott Pack (a long-time friend of this blog) and Kat Stephen to republish out-of-print or neglected titles as ebooks. Their first title is Brazilian Sketches, a set of seven articles (each with an accompanying poem) that Rudyard Kipling wrote during a journey to Brazil in March and April of 1927. The articles were printed in newspapers later than year and at the beginning of the next, but did not appear as a collection until 1940, after Kipling’s death. This is the first ebook edition.

Reading Brazilian Sketches now, from this distance, with relatively little by way of context, has been an intriguing experience. It’s like eavesdropping on history. Kipling’s descriptive passages convey ‘being in the moment’ vividly; here, for example, is his arrival in Rio:

In two minutes the shadowy lines of the crowded wharves vanished, and the car was sweeping down a blazing perspective, chequered strongly with double lines of tree-foliage and flanked with lit and packed clubs, shops, and cafes. This world of light gave of a sudden, between the shoulders of gigantic buildings, on to even vaster spaces of single-way avenues, between trees, with the harbour on one side, fringed by electric lights that raced forward, it seemed for ever, and renewed themselves in strings of pearl flung round invisible corners; while, above everything, one saw and felt the outlines of forested mountains.

Even more than a sense of place, however, what really comes across to me is the sense of another’s viewpoint. Perhaps inevitably, there are attitudes and assumptions embedded within Kipling’s sketches that I don’t share; and they are not easily extricated from the things that I like about the book. But it’s fascinating to see a subject like electricity treated in a way that seems so far away from anything I can imagine being written now, as when Kipling personifies the dynamo of a hydroelectric power station: “Out of his enforced agencies is born ‘power’, which every one, of course, can explain, but which no one knows anything about, except that it will bear watching.”

The Brazil depicted by Kipling is in a time of transition, industrialisation in particular. Kipling often characterises this process as one of human progress fighting back against a natural world that keeps on encroaching. A snake farm developing anti-venom: “the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from hut to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine”. The railway out of São Paulo: “every yard of those fallacious mountain-sides conspired against man from the almost vertical slopes out of sight above, to the quite vertical ravines below.” To my mind, this viewpoint has some troubling implications; but it is also bound up in the way that Kipling organises the space within his writing, open up each experience moment by moment.

Book details (publisher link)

Brazilian Sketches (1940) by Rudyard Kipling, Abandoned Bookshop ebook.

We Love This Book reviews: Andrew Lovett & David and Hilary Crystal

Here are my two latest reviews from We Love This Book:

Andrew Lovett, Everlasting Lane (2013)

When his father dies, young Peter Lambert finds himself with a new life before he has had much chance to make sense of the old one.

Peter’s mother (now insisting that she’s going to be his Aunt Kat) whisks him away to an old cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley. Kat tells him that this is his grandmother’s cottage, and that he has lived here before; Peter doesn’t remember that, but the house does seem strangely familiar. And Peter would very much like to know what’s in one particular room which is hidden away behind heavy drapes.

Andrew Lovett’s debut is partly a tale of growing up in the 1970s, and he populates Everlasting Lane with some memorable secondary characters who come into Peter’s life. These include his new teacher, Mr Gale, who comes up with his own insulting nicknames for his pupils (‘Lambchop’ in Peter’s case), and generally treats them shabbily – until a cricket match goes wrong. Most of all, there’s Anna-Marie Liddell, the pretty girl next door who is only a year older than Peter, but likes to act as though she’s far superior. She and Peter become something like friends; their relationship has a thread of uncertainty that’s very well realised.

The mystery of Peter’s new circumstances adds an extra dimension to the novel, a sombre undercurrent stemming from suggestions of tragedy in his family’s past. This turns Everlasting Lane into a dark riff on Famous Five-style tales of children solving mysteries. I’m not sure that the full force of the novel’s adult issues always emerges from Peter’s viewpoint as a child; but there is a clear and poignant sense that he is trapped in his own story. Everlasting Lane is an interesting coming-of-age tale which never quite settles into the shape you might expect.

Links
Original review
The publisher, Galley Beggar Press

David and Hilary Crystal, Wordsmiths & Warriors (2013)

In Wordsmiths and Warriors, linguist David Crystal and his partner Hilary take us on a historical tour of Britain to show us how – and, more importantly, where – the English language was shaped.

Each chapter of Wordsmiths and Warriors focuses on a particular place of significance in the development of the English language in Britain – from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons at Pegwell Bay in Kent in the fifth century, through to Randolph Quirk’s Survey of English Usage, inaugurated at University College London in 1959. The book is a mixture of a historical accounts, anecdotes and illustrations from the Crystals’ own road trip. There are even directions to each site if you want to make your own visit.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, whether you are unfamiliar with the history of English or, like me, studied it at one time then headed in a different direction (for those with greater knowledge, I’m less sure; this feels like a general-interest book). Amongst many other topics, the Crystals’ survey takes in the Paston letters; Robert Burns and the development of Scots; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Dylan Thomas’s contribution to Welsh English; and Roget’s Thesaurus.

The book is arranged chronologically rather than geographically, which (perhaps inevitably) reduces the sense of a journey. But the history is the main thread, and it is fascinating to view that history through its places, gaining a vivid sense of how the story of English in Britain moves (broadly speaking) from battlefields, castles and ecclesiastical establishments to scholarly halls and writers’ rooms. It remains a dynamic story, wherever it takes place, and the Crystals capture that dynamism superbly in Wordsmiths and Warriors.

Links
Original review
The publisher, Oxford University Press

Joe Simpson, Touching the Void (1988)

A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.

That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.

Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:

I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)

That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.

The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:

‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)

It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.

Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.

But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.

This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:

Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).

So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.

This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Diary: Part 2

Part 1 of this diary is available here.

Tuesday 13th

10.00 am: My first history talk of the festival — Frank McLynn on Marcus Aurelius. I don’t know much about Roman history, so I don’t think I got the most out of it that I could have; but McLynn was interesting and engaging nonetheless.

12.00: Today’s Guest Director is Alice Roberts, and spotting her for my game of ‘Guest Director bingo’ will be easy, as I’m attending two of her events. The first of these is called ‘Journey into Colour’, with a panel consisting of Roberts, the writer Victoria Finlay (who wrote a book on colour which I actually bought several years ago, but have never got around to reading) and Mark Midownik, a materials scientist. Finlay was enthusiastic, and her talk fascinating; but I felt that Midownik was not a good speaker, and his contribution on the science of colour was rather dry. I really should read that book of Finlay’s, though.

4.00 pm: My second of Alice Roberts’s events — geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer on the story of human migration. An interesting subject but, unfortunately, the talk was a little too technical for me.

6.00 pm: Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan on football — specifically, on Ancona’s attempts to wean McGowan off it. The readings from their book were excellent, and the whole hour was hilarious.

8.45 pm: My last event of the day, and this time it’s a ‘proper’ author — Sarah Waters. I’ve never read her work, but do have a copy of The Little  Stranger, which I’ve been meaning to read. Interesting stuff, though I stll haven’t got around to reading the book.

Wednesday 14th

10.00 am: Matthew Rice on ‘The Language of Architecture’. I took a chance on this event, and am so glad I did. Rice was hilarious, and gave a brilliant introduction to a subject I’m not well-versed in.

2.00 pm: Sara Wheeler on the Arctic. This was a combined history and travelogue; interesting enough, but perhaps too ‘bitty’.

4.00 pm: Another hsitory talk — Jenny Uglow on Charles II. Uglow illuminated a part of history I never really studied in detail, so I was pleased to go to this.

5.15 pm: Today’s Guest Director is Monica Ali, whom I was due to see now, alongside another novelist, Geoff Dyer. Unfortunately, however, Ali is unable to attend owing to illness, so this event is Dyer on his own. I’d never heard of him prior to this, but he was a highly entertaining interviewee, and reader and he joins my list of ‘writers I must investigate’.

8.45 pm: I was due to see Keith Floyd at this point, but of course he sadly passed away last month. I raise a glass in his honour.

Thursday 15th

10.00 am: Today starts with my best history talk of the Festival — David Horspool on English rebellions throughout history. He’s a great speaker and storyteller, and shows the value of taking a broad historical view of one topic.

4.00 pm: From history to historical fiction, with Tracy Chevalier and Hilary Mantel. I’ve already seen the latter in my first event, of course, and she’s engaging once again. I’m very intrigued by the sound of Chevalier’s latest novel, about the early 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. The TBR pile grows ever larger…

7.0o pm: Travel writer Christopher Somerville on his new book of walks around Britain. Fascinating stuff, as Somerville covers areas that don’t necessarily come to mind as fruitful areas for walks, such as Canvey Island and the circular walking routes around London. He also relates tales of a walk across Crete in the winter for his 50th birthday, and walking to the very northernmost point of the British Isles for his 60th. Somerville becomes another writer I should read.

8.45 pm: A performance of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World by the Paper Cinema and Kieron Maguire. How to describe this? They film cut-out paper puppets and project the results on to a screen, while Maguire provides a live soundtrack. It was good, but I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I knew the story better.

9.30 pm: I still haven’t spotted today’s Guest Director, Rageh Omaar. I know he is in the middle of a talk now, and I could hang around the signing tent for half an hour until he comes in — but I’m not really that bothered, am I? I decide that I’m not, and head off back to the hotel instead.

Part 3 of the diary coming soon…

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