Posts Tagged ‘Book review’

‘Bend not Break’ by Ping Fu, reviewed in Engineering & Technology magazine by Nick Smith

February 10, 2013

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Her first job was assembling transistor radios in a Chinese forced labour factory in Nanjing. She was serving the Party, reluctantly helping millions of agricultural workers listen to Chairman Mao’s broadcasts every morning. On her first day, the barely teenage Ping Fu assembled 30 units. But she had failed to connect the volume terminal and so none of them worked. But such was her aptitude for technology that she graduated to speedometers and by the time she was 18, after serving a stint in the military, she had risen to the rank of electrical engineer.

When not working at the factory she read banned copies of Gone With the Wind as well as Pride and Prejudice. If caught with such proscribed texts she ran the risk of being executed. But, separated from her family, Ping Fu was ambivalent about survival. She’d been gang raped by the Red Army when she was only 10.

Today, Ping Fu is President and CEO of Geomagic, a company that reshapes the world, from personalising prosthetic limbs to fixing NASA spaceships. She is also one of only three ‘minority women’ running a Fortune 500 company. How she escaped China and became the embodiment of the American Dream is the subject of her new book, ‘Bend, Not Break.’ Honoured by President Obama, Ping Fu has reason to feel that ascendency into the corporate stratosphere might entitle her to feel that her life has been a triumph of resourcefulness over adversity. But, as her book illustrates, crossing cultures can be fraught, while life can sometimes be defined as much by what is left behind as what lies ahead.

Bend, Not Break is a book that tells two stories about two separate worlds. On the one hand there is the trauma of growing up during the dawn of China’s Cultural Revolution. On the other, there is the tale of how she became a leading light in the Internet revolution in the US. There is also a journey between imprisonment and freedom, from the draconian anti-capitalism of Mao’s repressive regime to the vaulting ambition of the world of technology start-ups and the dot-com bubble. Able to cope with, and survive, these extremes she is often mystified by both and as a result Ping Fu is at her most illuminating when writing about clashes of cultural identities. As she gets closer to receiving her US citizenship she realises she has never felt more Chinese. When in 1993 she finally returns from exile to be reunited with her families (she was adopted, but recognises both her Shanghai and Nanjing parents) she realises that post communist China is every bit as grotesque as it was under Mao.

A life such as Ping Fu’s would be enough to break anyone. But as her title suggests, like the bamboo of her birth country she has learned to develop an amazing capacity for bending with the wind.

Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, by Ping Fu is published by Penguin, PB, £12.99, pp276, ISBN 978-0-670-92201-7

This review first appeared in the January 2013 edition of Engineering and Technology magazine http://eandt.theiet.org/

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Nick Smith reviews ‘The Quest for Frank Wild’ by Angie Butler in Geographical, October 2011

September 30, 2011

One of only two men to ever be awarded the Polar Medal with four bars, Frank Wild was a giant of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He went South on five expeditions: once under Scott and Mawson and three times under Shackleton, eventually completing the Quest expedition after the death of the Boss. No serious aficionado of polar history doubts the significance of Wild’s contribution, so it’s something of a mystery that until now his memoirs have remained unpublished.

What little we know of Wild’s life after Quest seems to indicate that it was all downhill. If we believe contemporary newspaper accounts, Wild returned to southern Africa, tumbling from one failed farming project to another, taking dead-end jobs in hotel bars, scraping a living out of mining and railway projects. For decades the world, if it has noticed at all, has seen post-Antarctica Wild as a broken alcoholic who died in penury, the whereabouts of his remains unknown.

Sensing an injustice to the man, Butler sets out to find the real story behind the reports. She finds out that her instincts are good, but only to a point. Wild’s is a sad tale, but one with an unexpected outcome. In the process of metaphorically looking for the man, Butler, on her seventh visit to South Africa, finds his ashes. We probably all join her in the hope that they will one day be taken to Antarctica.

While it’s fascinating to see Butler’s spirited defence of Wild, her biographical sketch is really the curtain raiser for his previously unpublished memoirs. It seems inconceivable that it has taken so long for them to come to light, but the wait was worth it. It’s a shame that the memoirs were never finished, cut off abruptly with a cliff-hanging tale of life on Elephant Island during the Endurance expedition. At least that chapter in Wild’s life has a happy ending.

The Quest for Frank Wild, by Angie Butler, Jackleberry Press, pp214, £25

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

Nick Smith reviews William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives’ in Bookdealer, December 2009 edition

December 1, 2009

Letting India speak for itself

Nick Smith reviews, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple

A lot’s changed in the two decades since the young William Dalrymple published his first book In Xanadu. India has changed, the world has changed and so too has travel writing, he tells us in his introduction to his latest, Nine Lives. In the 1980s, the genre was all about the writer, with the far-flung landscapes and the people who inhabit them relegated often simply to an exotic stage setting. Indeed, while Dalrymple was cutting his teeth on his first India book City of Djinns, another well known travel writer, Michael Palin, was broadcasting Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole to a public that, dazzled by his celebrity, seemed to have developed an insatiable appetite for travel journalism provided it was about the journalist and not about travel.

But fashions change and our objectives have evolved into something slightly more ambitious than simply reporting on how unlike us foreigners are. Palin is now president of the Royal Geographical Society and Dalrymple is recognised as a leading popular historian specialising in India. In the past decade, in terms of book publishing at least, he appears to have turned his back on producing any more of those beautifully rendered travelogues that made his name, preferring to concentrate on delivering the first two volumes of his monumental commentary on the Mughal Empire. He’s also edited Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes, which falls into the same category of historical production. But, there’s been very little in the way of sustained travel writing. And yet, if we are to believe the Guardian, Dalrymple has ‘effortlessly assumed the mantle of Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.’

One of the reasons for his being one of our most important travel writers is that when he turns his hand to the craft there are simply few better than Dalrymple. With Nine Lives he has proven once again that you don’t need to prolific to be of literary importance (Leigh Fermor’s books emerged at a rate of about one per decade). So, even after a decade’s absence from the fray, when the man who gave us From the Holy Mountain says it’s all changed, we’ve ripped up the programme and we’re doing it differently now, it probably makes sense to listen.

What exactly is different about Nine Lives? To answer that question it’s helpful to start with why it’s similar to Dalrymple’s collection of travel journalism The Age of Kali. In Kali he explores the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in India. But you could do that with any country. What’s so fascinating about India is the rate of change, and this is what gives Dalrymple his hook. Thousands of years of unchanging tradition, he says, are under attack from all sides by the skirmishers of the digital revolution. The new India loves technology: but while everyone in the city is becoming a software engineer, drinking Starbucks in their Levis and Ray-Bans, a few miles outside the city men in dhotis are tending the land with agricultural utensils that haven’t changed in five millennia. If you want to express the rate of growth of India’s economy on a graph, just point the line straight up. If it continues like this, by 2050 India’s economy will lead the world.

How Dalrymple chooses to express the changing face of India in Nine Lives is what’s different. Gone is the intrusive self-consciously literary narrator scribbling in an unfamiliar landscape (although Dalrymple can’t resist telling us about his ‘slowly filling… notebooks’). In a moment of artistic self-extirpation he’s banished the central narrator of old, to make room for the people of India tell their own story. So what have we got? Nine people, nine lives, all based on interviews in eight languages and all cracking entertainment.

In ‘The Nun’s Tale’ we are told of friend who undertakes sallekhana, a ritual fast to the death; in ‘The Daughters of Yellamma’ we hear the harrowing story of the devadasi (or temple prostitute) who introduces her two daughters into a trade that she regards as a sacred calling, only to lose both teenagers to AIDS; there is the story of the woman who leaves her middle class family in Calcutta and her job in the jute factory only to find unexpected love and fulfillment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground; and there is an idol maker, the thirty-fifth of a line of sculptors going back to the Chola bronze makers who sees creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India, but has to reconcile himself to his son, whose ambition it is to study computer engineering.

The cast of characters, drawn from different walks of life, with their heart-breaking, life-affirming and often plain weird stories, invites immediate comparison with Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, and to his credit Dalrymple acknowledges this straight away. But this isn’t ‘a modern Indian Canterbury Tales’ as the accompanying PR blurb enthusiastically trumpets, because there’s no pilgrimage to while away, no journey, no raiding of the memory banks of the oral tradition. Nine Lives does something else; something entirely different, more akin to an Impressionist painting, where the deftness of the brush strokes, rather than the detail, paints a subtly textured and unexpectedly complex piece that has Dalrymple’s fingerprints all over it.

That Nine Lives is unmistakably and so assuredly from the pen of Dalrymple is a tribute to his depth of knowledge of the people and places of India. As deployed in his The Age of Kali, his main strengths are his instinctive feel for what details matter, how much they weigh and how to articulate them in his understated, but quite lovely prose. While so many of today’s travel writers shift from territory to territory in search of new thrills, Dalrymple goes deeper and deeper into the landscape of India in order to return with clearer images of the people who live there. And in trying to appreciate their lives, we enrich our understanding of our own, and this is why Nine Lives might well be William Dalrymple’s most important book to date.

Nick Smith writes for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award.

Nine Lives is published by Bloomsbury, £2.00, pp 285 · ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith writes on Aeronwy Thomas’s ‘My Father’s Places’ in October 2009 Bookdealer

October 15, 2009

Lost girl in the land of my fathers

Nick Smith reviews

My Father’s Places: a portrait of childhood by Dylan Thomas’ daughter

By Aeronwy Thomas, Constable, £14.99, pp 218

On the fiftieth anniversary of her father’s death Dylan Thomas’s only daughter said in an interview with the BBC: “Some of my best memories are when we walked back silently to the Boat House and I just felt so comfortable with him and he obviously felt comfortable with me… because there wasn’t any need to speak.” Aeronwy Thomas had put up with a lot. Her father had died before she’d reached her teens and she’d been forced to grow up in public with hurtful, nasty comments made about her father without a thought for her feelings. Gutsy, she stuck to her guns, defended the poetry and made allowances for the father. But she did need to speak. “Beyond being a drunkard and a writer and a womaniser,” she said commenting on his belated inclusion at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, “he was predominantly a poet. So what if he was a drinker? There are many drinkers in the United Kingdom, but there are not that many writers.”

Aeronwy died in July this year as her last book – My Father’s Places – was going to press. It’s sad when an author doesn’t get to see the fruits of their labour, but in this case particularly so because it’s a posthumous labour of love that ‘took ten years to write from start to finish’. That it took a decade to get out of her system suggests that it was something she simply had to get right. She consulted her father’s biographer Paul Ferris, and academic Barbara Hardy ‘who never lost faith in the content of my own memories’. That the resulting book seems to contradict the diplomatically crafted public statements she made throughout her life, could mean that we have here a work that sheds important new light on the Swansea-born poet. Gone are the torch-bearing defences of the great 20th century bard, and instead we have a more muted, sometimes overly-sunny, Tizer and Welsh cakes idealisation of hopeful youth: as with so many children of celebrities, she didn’t particularly want a famous father, she just wanted a father.

My Father’s Places, despite its title – recalling the phrase from St John that would have been hammered into the young Aeronwy in the chapels of west Wales – is neither much about her father or geography. It’s really a memoir of her own childhood, with the years at the famous Boat House in Laugharne clearly the most important. There is the complex relationship with her mother, Caitlin MacNamara, former professional dancer upon whom motherhood sat awkwardly. Caitlin, though she undoubtedly loved her children and her husband too, was a hard-drinking exhibitionistic firebrand would pull her daughter’s hair until she screamed because she looked ‘so much like your father. The harder I pull your curls, the better I feel.’ Caitlin often beat her daughter so violently that she would run to her grandmother’s to escape, only to find that upon her arrival she was physically incapable of sitting down. And yet there were times when she’d go skinny-dipping with her mum, secretly pleased that they were shocking the neighbourhood.

The trail of writers and artists that drank and vomited their way through the Boat House of Aeronwy’s youth hardly made her life easier. One of Dylan Thomas’s many guests gave her a gold ring in exchange for her silence following an incident when he sexually assaulted her on a boating trip. Her father by special arrangement would be allowed into the local pub before 11 o’clock when it officially opened, and by lunchtime was often incapable of recognising his own child in the street (at her baptism he got her name wrong, giving it as Aeron Hart, instead of Aeronwy Bryn). At seven o’clock Caitlin and Dylan would go to ‘the Brown’s’ pub together leaving their daughter to look after baby Colm. On their return there were routinely fights, singing and slanging matches, and worst of all for the young Aeronwy, her mother would get dolled up and dance in front of the guests, doing cartwheels, showing her knickers and drunkenly knocking over the furniture. These are the memories of their only daughter in her final memoir.

Maybe none of this was so shocking in post-war rural Wales, but this disorganised and dysfunctional childhood was certainly a long way from the norm. And wistful, nostalgic and romantic as My Father’s Places may be, it’s also a bleak insight into a cracked family of unstable megalomaniacs with no parenting skills and no desire to acquire them. As she wanders around the emotional bombsite of her childhood memories, Aeronwy seems to become ever more desperate to put a brave face on things, make it all normal, make it all go away.

One of the ways she does this is to imitate her father’s prose style. Every phrase is well chosen, well turned and written to be read aloud. There is the same inebriation with language: the artful zeugma, transferred epithets and tumbling tricolons. There is the same compressed musicality of dialogue and the same searching for a (probably non-existent) primal Welsh lyricism, mixed up with the effing and blinding of the public bar at chucking out time. Of course, she’s nowhere near as good as her father, but of his many imitators, she’s the best.

Oddly My Father’s Places reveals almost nothing about Dylan that we don’t already know, although Aeronwy is very good at reminding us that he was of course very young. We tend to forget that. Even when he was old he was very young, and when he died he was only thirty-nine and not that much older than Keats. When she recalls that he hero-worshipped Henry Miller and thought Tropic of Cancer the ‘best fucking book’ ever written, it is a tremendous insight into the mind of the young poet, because only thrusting young men bursting with literary ambition are likely to admire Miller. For all the clichés of being locked in his writing shed by his fiery wife, hacking out every ponderous syllable with a Woodbine dangling from his lips, here was a man in love with words, who thought writers and writing were cool. For all the tangled over-written madness of the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ that was Under Milk Wood, here was a man with who loved experimental literature, whose legacy is a handful of the most profoundly glorious poems of the 20th century.

You leave My Father’s Places the way you leave much of Aeronwy Thomas’s father’s best work. Inspired and slightly depressed. In an appendix she has included a poem of her own that in some respects resembles her father’s terrific piece of occasional verse – ‘Prologue’ – that he wrote to introduce his Collected Poems in 1952. In ‘Later than Laugharne’ she writes of the ‘balmy, never-to-be-forgotten days, green and golden…’ a reference also to the final lines of ‘Fern Hill.’ Brave? Self deluded? Its rhapsodic, mellifluous, self-consciously Welsh tone can do nothing to cover up a little girl’s lost childhood subverted by her parents alcoholism and poverty. And yet she was the child of one of the great poets, and there are times when she seems to happily accept that this comes at a price.

Nick Smith was brought up in Swansea, Dylan Thomas’s ‘ugly, lovely town’ before reading English at Balliol College, Oxford. He now writes for the Daily Telegraph

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s new book ‘The Land of Eagles’ in August 2009 Bookdealer magazine

August 26, 2009

Breughelesque farmers in Byronic landscapes

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s ‘The Land of Eagles: Riding through Europe’s Forgotten Country’

The trouble with the Balkans, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, is they create more history than they can consume. And while, as with so many of the old Bulldog’s more epigrammatic sayings, this may on the surface appear to make sense, it’s also an expression with hidden shallows. Certainly, the geographical region we now call Albania (or more likely ‘plucky little Albania’) has had more than its fair share of invasions, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political upheaval over the centuries, largely because of its situation on the political fault-line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. But paradoxically, from the 21st century perspective at least, As Robin Hanbury-Tenison points out in his superb Land of Eagles, it is also one of the most dormant, remote and traditional countries in a fast-changing Europe that has apparently forgotten all about it.

Obscured by communism and locked away behind ramparts of impassable mountains, Albania may have been overlooked economically and may well lack what we today call development. But it has long and constantly attracted the literary and cultural traveller.

As Hanbury-Tenison points out, Albania is awash with literary and cultural references. Shakespeare set Twelfth Night in Illyria, an ancient region of the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic coast that is modern Albania. In Così fan tutte Mozart casts his two scheming lovers as ‘Albanian Noblemen’. Edward Gibbon describes Albania as ‘a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America’. And of course Byron set his lengthy narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Albania, the country the romantic poet rode through with his friend John Cam Hobhouse in 1809. Edward Lear swung into the saddle to ride across the landscape, a journey ultimately expressed in his 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. Noted Victorian traveller Edith Durham, often described as the first woman war correspondent and a great enthusiast for the Albanian people, also rode through the mountains before publishing her epic book High Albania. For the record, Hanbury-Tenison comments that up in the high mountain passes of the north ‘these are the woods where Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter books goes to lie low after being defeated. We could see why, as they felt quite divorced from the rest of the world.’

Hanbury-Tenison is a renowned and veteran horseman, and he likes to do his travelling on horseback. A few years ago I interviewed him for the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, and he told me that ‘on foot with a pack you see nothing but your feet. In a car you are insulated from the real world. But on a horse, you have an intelligent animal doing all of the work and most of the thinking, leaving you free to look and listen, to communicate with those you meet.’ These could so easily be the words of the explorer’s hero and mentor, Wilfred Thesiger, and in emulating the great desert traveller Hanbury-Tenison is preserving something of a noble tradition that sees exploring as being about discovering things rather than breaking records. And it’s a formula that has obviously worked and stood the test of time, with Hanbury-Tenison previously riding through and writing about China, Spain, New Zealand and France.

And now Albania. Although the real question is probably ‘why Albania?’ Why not, the author seems to imply, recounting a story of how he first met the Crown Prince Leka of Albania at Sandhurst. The prince had been on a military exercise with the explorer’s son and was covered with mud. He clicked the heels of his boots together in the manner of a Prussian officer before announcing: ‘You will always be welcome in my country.’ Hanbury-Tenison took him at face value and in 2007 he and his wife Louella went on an expedition along the length of the country from Theth in the north to Erind in the south. The result is Land of Eagles, a good old-fashioned travel book, and the sort that would win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award if it were still going. It’s got just the right balance of travelogue and digression, contrasting a gruelling expedition journal with riveting trivia and occasionally complex political history. One minute Hanbury-Tenison will breezily relate an anecdote about how Norman Wisdom became a national hero, while the next he’ll describe the Balkan Peace Park Project, an initiative where an environmentally protected area is set aside to unite communities and encourage tourism into a war-torn region. This appeals to the environmentalist in Hanbury-Tenison who explains in some depth how substantial chunks of Southern Montenegro and western Kosovo have been joined to the Albanian section, making a total area of 3,000 square kilometres… ‘The fact that this just happens to be the most beguiling and least known corner of Europe makes it a winner.’

Although Hanbury-Tenison’s knowledge of the region is impressive, both historically and culturally, he’s at his best when he’s in the saddle on the open road, which is quite often little more than the narrowest of tracks, often with a precipice one side and a cliff the other. He makes no secret that it is a hard journey: some of the mountain passes and suspension bridges would be terrifying to a man half his age, but now in his seventies Hanbury-Tenison occasionally allows himself to admit just how onerous the task is. To make matters worse the tracks that he uses are dismally signposted in a land without map or seemingly reliable guides. But for all his frustrations he is boyishly optimistic and genuinely enchanted by the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. In a sentence that could only have been written by Hanbury-Tenison he describes ‘the bucolic charm of Breughelesque farmers, who belong to the Byronic landscape so perfectly.’

Robin Hanbury-Tenison has always been an intensely busy man. Download his CV from his website and you will read what you’d be forgiven for thinking is a description of several action-packed lives. Of course he’s best known as an explorer – having lead or taken part in more than 30 expeditions – in which capacity he’s brought to the wider public the plight of the tribal peoples of the world as well as the rainforest. He’s also been named by the Sunday Times in 1982 as ‘the greatest explorer of the past 20 years’, and again in 1991 as one of the 1000 ‘Makers of the 20th Century’. He deserves to be much better known as an author and perhaps with the publication of Land of Eagles this slight injustice is about to be put right.

The Land of Eagles is published by I B Tauris, HB, £19.99 · ISBN 978-1845118556

For more information about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit http://www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ in the Literary Review (archive stuff)

August 26, 2009

Candour in Kandy

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’

Christopher Ondaatje’s best book to date is a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the years preceding the Great War. Woolf in Ceylon is simultaneously a reconstruction of its subject’s term of office as a civil servant on the colonial outpost; a photographic archive of a long-vanished society in the heyday of empire; a literal journey in Woolf’s footsteps through war-ravaged twenty-first-century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue. These four threads are woven together to make a well thought-out book, similar in genre to Ondaatje’s Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2003). The literary world may well be thirsty for Victoria Glendinning’s much-anticipated biography of the man of letters, but Ondaatje’s timely offering constitutes a valuable analysis of Woolf in his most formative years.

Ondaatje is well placed to comment on Woolf: born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, his early life is a curious mirror image of his subject’s. While the young Woolf, freshly graduated from Cambridge, sailed eastward to Ceylon for a stint in the Civil Service in order to learn the imperial ropes, Ondaatje was packed off in the other direction to a private school in Devon to discover how to become an English gentleman. The parallels continue, and it’s not hard to see why Woolf holds such a fascination for Ondaatje. Nor is it hard to draw the conclusion that Ondaatje’s return to Sri Lanka in 2004 to take photographs for the book has a personal significance akin to that of Woolf’s triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.

Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanations of some of the imperial workings of the British Civil Service, a system that plagued the highly-strung Woolf. He was one of the first to see the cracks appearing in the British Empire, and his understanding of the situation clearly influenced the thinking of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party in the years leading up to 1945.

The volume also comprises an important reappraisal of Woolf’s early novel The Village in the Jungle, which is set in Ceylon during the time of his posting there. Currently revived under the Eland banner (having been out of print in the UK since the early 1980s, though it has never gone out of print in Sri Lanka), the new edition has an afterword by Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon, he convincingly contends that The Village in the Jungle ‘s importance lies primarily in its being one of the very few books to deal with a colonial situation from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser – a blatant clue to Woolf’s developing mistrust of, and later disgust with, imperialism. In his epilogue Ondaatje indulges in some literary forensics as he sets out to find the original village of the title, long thought to be fictional. Working on the basis that Woolf’s fiction is nearly always rooted in established, demonstrable fact, the author makes the not unreasonable assumption that the double murder central to the novel’s plot must have happened in a real place. True to his explorer’s instincts, Ondaatje not only finds the actual site of Beddagama, but also makes a plausible case for Woolf’s association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers an insight into and critique of Woolf’s incredibly rare Stories from the East, three brilliantly revealing short pieces relating to his time in Ceylon that have previously only been available in a 1921 Hogarth Press edition limited to 300 copies (expensive!), or as an appendix to the improbably entitled Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911: Records of a Colonial Administrator, being the Official Diaries maintained by Leonard Woolf while Assistant Government Agent of the Hambantota District, Ceylon … ; & Stories from the East: Three Short Stories on Ceylon , available as a paperback only, and after considerable effort, in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf’s acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf’s five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind’s relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.

But, sexual awakening aside, the real issue and defining characteristic of Woolf’s Ceylon years – something that was to serve him well in later life – was his punishing work ethic: his ability to ‘stick at it’ was to effect his meteoric rise to influence in Ceylon. He did the work of his superiors in Jaffna, organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford (the acting Governor of Ceylon and a notorious ladies’ man), and was rewarded with the job of Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf’s efficiency and industry in the dry, south-eastern Hambantota district resulted in its becoming the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.

Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf’s strange courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also observant on Lytton Strachey’s influence on the couple’s early relationship, as well as on the sensitive issue of Virginia’s sexual abuse as a child by her elder half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth (published posthumously in Sketches of the Past). These passages illuminate the loving but sexless marriage between two of the most influential figures in Edwardian literary circles.

The text of Woolf in Ceylon could easily stand on its own, but the inclusion of more than sixty photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the twentieth century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, add real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author’s own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka, which serve to broaden the book’s appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today’s reader a much clearer understanding of why his importance goes way beyond simply being Mr Virginia Woolf.

To find out more about Christopher Ondaatje’s books visit http://www.ondaatje.com

Nick Smith reviews Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ in September 2009 edition of Bookdealer

August 26, 2009

Revelling in the Reeperbahn

Nick Smith reviews a new edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’

It’s been a busy time of late for James Bond aficionados. There’s been the release of the latest movie Quantum of Solace as well as Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, apparently the last ever Bond novel. The latter was published last year on 28th May, on what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, and the Queen Anne Press brought out a sumptuous 18-volume centenary edition of the author’s complete works at the same time.

For those not suffering from Fleming fatigue, wondering if there’s a little something left in the tank, there are reissues of two of Fleming’s works of journalism: The Diamond Smugglers, a piece of investigative journalism that penetrates the world of international gem trafficking, and Thrilling Cities, thirteen essays of travel writing, urban portraiture commissioned by the Sunday Times exactly 50 years ago. Of the two Thrilling Cities is by modern standards the better book, and there will be travel editors up and down the land tearing their hair out that they neither have the budget nor a sufficiently imaginative publisher to allow for the commission of a series of such sustained brilliance as this.

Despite being overlooked by collectors – you can get a decent UK first for around £100 (compare that with, say Thunderball) – Thrilling Cities is Fleming at his best. There are a few negative comments to make about it because any collection of newspaper articles bundled up for publication, as a book will suffer from inconsistencies and repetitions. And although it is tempting to say that Ian Fleming Publications could have produced an edition with more critical apparatus and textual analysis, at the end of the day we’re dealing with journalism that was – no matter how good – of its day. To me at least the most important concern is that we’re presented with the unexpurgated versions of Fleming’s essays. He rather revels in the strip clubs, topless mud wrestling and red light districts of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and so would have been peeved to have found these details hacked out by assiduous sub-editors working under a nervous editor’s instructions.

Another problem with reproducing newspaper journalism is with the contractual obligation stuff that all travel hacks have to (quite often against their will) include. There will be nightclubs that have given you a smashing night out, restaurants that have killed the fatted calf, as well as airlines and hotels that have upgraded you to both seats and suites bigger than your house. All this has to be paid for with name checks and superlatives. Despite having bought a round-the-world air ticket for £803 19s. 2d. and having drawn £500 in travellers’ cheques from the Chief Accountant, Fleming is no exception to this time-honoured barter system and there are times when his (often very amusing) ‘Incidental Intelligence’ notes extend to several pages, as with New York.

By contrast there is no incidental intelligence relating to Monte Carlo, the last thrilling city in the series. Maybe this is not that much of a discrepancy, as the essay on Monte Carlo is so lacking in local colour of any description it is hard to believe that Fleming ever even went there, at least for this commission. Some early editions of Thrilling Cities have the so-called ‘lost Bond story’ – ‘007 in New York’ – appended to the New York essay, but this reprint doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s not well-known and this edition might have benefitted from its inclusion.

Fleming’s journey is divided into two series: the first is a truly global jet-setting affair, with the second a rather glamorous blast around Europe in his seven-litre Thunderbird, which he tells us is ‘very comfortable, roomy, and as quick as hell.’ And off he went leaving ‘humdrum London’ not because he could see much literary merit in the enterprise but because he wanted to ‘see the world, however rapidly, while it was still there to see.’

Anyone expecting Fleming to be a fish out of water in the travel genre will be sorely disappointed. He’s a terrific journalist and travel writer whose observations are blunt, colourful, patriotic and at times reassuringly elitist. Hard for us to imagine now of course, but at the time you could only do journeys like this if you were the creator of James Bond with a seemingly unlimited license to travel. This license came from Leonard Russell, Features and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, who in October 1959 ‘came up with the idea that I should make a round trip of the most exciting cities of the world and describe them in beautiful, beautiful prose.’

Of the 14 cities Fleming visits I’ve been to only four, which in itself says much about what cities were thrilling then and are no longer now. The way in which European travel has changed over the past half a century means that many of the places Fleming visits are now industrialised clichés where you might stop in order to change plane while heading for somewhere thrilling in Africa (a continent studiously avoided by Fleming). Having said that, the shared experience is important because it shows just how good he is at grasping the essential character of the city.

Even so we’re worlds apart: I can honestly say that I’ve never stayed at the house of the most powerful English taipan (‘big shot’) while in Hong Kong. Likewise, in many visits to New York I’ve never dined where it’s necessary to tip the headwaiter $50 simply to get a table and wouldn’t know where to. While in Hamburg I’ve certainly been to gigantic Bavarian beer halls, my head half blown off by brass bands, but I’ve never found places where ‘you can enjoy really hot jazz.’ In Geneva I’ve paid ten pounds for a fried egg and yet never encountered a single occasion where a working knowledge of the anonymously numbered banking account system has been absolutely necessary.

Fleming’s world is swanky and suave – just like James Bond – and the reason his cities are thrilling is simply that he seeks out what the guidebooks omit. Doors fling themselves open before his fame and charisma, both a better passport than a passport. But at other times the thrills turn into grief simply too hard to bear. He leaves Berlin without regret: ‘From this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1917 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother.’ For all these quite unexpected personal reflections, Jan Morris is entirely correct when she says in her introduction to this new edition of Thrilling Cities that as P.G.Wodehouse is to the comic novel so is Ian Fleming to the thriller. His travel journalism is wonderfully flashing, humorous and quick as hell. Those who through over-familiarity with the Bond novels have grown tired of Fleming should get hold of a copy of this marvelous edition of Thrilling Cities and have their faith restored.

Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ is published by Ian Fleming Publications, £15.00 · ISBN 978-1 -906772-00-0

Nick Smith regularly writes travel features for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award

To find out more about Bookdealer magazine visit http://www.bookdealer.org.uk/

Former Focus magazine editor Nick Smith reviews Mark Mackenzie’s ‘Wildest Dream’ for BBC Focus

July 9, 2009

The Wildest Dream: in the footsteps of Mallory and Irvine

By Mark Mackenzie, £20, John Murray, hb, 248pp, ISBN 978-0-7195-2482-0

One of the greatest mysteries in mountaineering is that surrounding whether George Mallory and his colleague Andrew Irvine got to the top of Mount Everest during their fatal ascent in 1924.

The evidence has been debated for decades, and yet the puzzle has remained steadfastly unsolved. Not until 1999, when the legendary Conrad Anker led a team that found Mallory’s remains, was there sufficient new data to allow more informed opinions. But even these divided the mountaineering community.

Plagued by the desire to know what really happened, Anker decided to reconstruct his predecessors’ expedition to see if the fearsome Second Step that leads to the summit could be ‘free climbed’ in original gear. This at least would pave the way for the possibility that Mallory and Irvine might, just might have done what Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay indisputably achieved in 1953.

And so the 2007 Altitude Everest expedition was born, the experienced Anker in charge with young ‘rock star’ prodigy Leo Houlding part of the final assault team.

The Wildest Dream is the story of all three expeditions published as a precursor to a film of the same name that goes on release this summer. It’s good solid stuff and Mackenzie – an experienced journalist who accompanied the Altitude Everest expedition as far as Base Camp – has done a terrific job in conveying the misery, danger and exhilaration of life on the world’s tallest mountain.

I’m not going to steal Mackenzie’s thunder by blowing the end, but you can be sure that The Wildest Dream is a superb yarn of high adventure. As Mackenzie says towards the end: ‘whether or not they had reached the summit, they had climbed higher on the mountain than anyone before them, with none of the benefits, unreliable oxygen excepted, enjoyed by their modern counterparts.’

Nick Smith is UK editor of the Explorers Journal and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society

‘Wildest Dream’ book review for BBC Focus magazine, by Nick Smith, April 2009]