Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Every man, provided that he does not raise blisters or other impediments on his feet, can walk in a day at least half as far again as he imagines."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In the course of writing about David Grann's The Lost City of Z (2009) the other day, I mentioned Peter Fleming's account of his own attempt to follow the footsteps of lost explorer Percy Fawcett, Brazilian Adventure (1933). In The Lost City of Z, Grann quotes a passage from Fleming that is worth sharing for its so-very-English send-up of English types:
There were the Prudent, who said: "This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do." There were the Wise, who said: "This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to dol but at least you will know better next time." There were the Very Wise, who said: "This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds." There were the Romantic, who appeared to believe that if everyone did this sort of thing all the time the world's troubles would soon be over. There were the Envious, who thanked God they were not coming; and there were the other sort, who said with varying degrees of insincerity that they would give anything to come. Theyw ere the Correct, who asked me if I knew any of the people at the Embassy. There were the Practical, who spoke at length of inoculations and calibres. . . . There were the Apprehensive, who asked me if I had made my will. There were the Men Who Had Done a Ceratin Amount of That Sort of Thing In Their Time, You Know, and these imparted to me elaborate stratagems for getting the better of ants and told me that monkeys made excellent eating, and so for that mater did lizards, and parrots; they all tasted rather like chicken.
That passage sent me back to Fleming's News from Tartary (1936), which tells of Fleming's unauthorized foot journey across China. It's a more serious book, from what I remember, as the journey is simultaneously more dangerous and more plodding, but Fleming is an engaging writer no matter the subject. Here he is on the monotony of life during an forced halt:
Life in camp was irksome and monotonous. A proper expedition, when it gets held up, can pass the time with contentment and profit, sorting out its specimens, taking meteorological observations, checking its stores; but we, alas, had no specimens to sort, nothing to take meteorological observations with, and no stores worth checking. Kini washed some clothes. But a dying sepoy, or an old fishwife, or some such person had once told her that clothes were best washed in water which had ashes in it, and the only result of her public-spirited laundering was to turn everything she washed dark grey. Then she boiled some hares against a potentially meatless future, but a cat stole most of them in the night. We were down to the last Arsene Lupin. It was all rather dreary.

I played patience endlessly. I had caught the habit in Sining, and it was terrifying to think of how many games I had played since then. I knew an increasingly large number ofhte cards by their backs: the ace of diamonds had a corner off, the three of spades was almost torn in two, the queen of clubs had gun oil all over her.
Then there's this description of the habitues of an oasis in Cherchen, China:
Occasionally there was an obvious malingerer, more occasionally there was a droll, and once we were visited by an official's young wife who was every inch the malade imaginaire with the grand manner--smoking cigarettes in a long holder, contrasting her home in Peking with the barbarous rusticity of Cherchen, smoothing her sheath-like dress with delicate fingers while she squatted on the carpets.
That use of "droll" as a noun brings a smile to my face every time.

Both books are available in the Marlboro Press's wonderful travel series; like almost all the books in that series, they come with my hearty recommendation. They're far, far better than suffering through such travail-ridden travels yourself.


  1. I'm not even certain that a traveler would be allowed to set out today if he or she packed "only the following supplies: 2 lb. of marmalade, 4 tins of cocoa, 6 bottles of brandy, 1 bottle of Worcester sauce, 1 lb, of coffee, 3 small packets of chocolate, some soap, and a good deal of tobacco." That's what Fleming had on his and Ella Maillart's walk across China.

    (I love the "one bottle of Worcester sauce.")

  2. Only six bottles of brandy to get across the whole length of China? Good God!