Posts Tagged ‘Sunday Times’

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

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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

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