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Alan Taylor talks to travel writer Wilfred Thesslger. Below, travel books reviewed.

Travelling hopefully in an armchair this year I have encountered many entertaining companions all of whom have, ifnot a book in them, at least a journey. I feel as if! have been round the world several times, in the course of which I‘ve caught every imaginable disease, seen as many customs officers as a drugs smuggler and been cold, hot, fatigued, hungry and sick at the sight of food.

It’s not easy being a reader of travel books. Most travel writers, when one presumes upon them like Stanley gatecrashing Livingstone, make light of their problems and some Wilfred Thesiger and Jonathan Raban spring to mind do not think of themselves as travel writers at all. Raban is a writer who just happens to travel; Thesiger is a traveller who would die happy if he never saw a pen again. The venerable Thesiger‘s autobiography, A Life of my Choice (Collins £15) has been perched in the bestseller lists most of the year and his book of photographs Visions of a fiomad (Collins £20) seems destined for a similar felicitous fate. This is surely justice for he is a traveller’s traveller, a man his peers revere.

Colin Thubron, however, doesn’t sweat over labels, he is a writer and a traveller, and few are as accomplished as he is at both trades. He never blunders into situations, like Peter Fleming or Redmond O‘Hanlon, but mugs up in the British Museum first and learns the lingo. He travel with hope, not hopefully. His last journey took him, recounted in Among the Chinese (Heinemann £10.95) to the Orient where he met the people on trains, in their houses, in the street and in the market. Because he spoke Mandarin he catches their sotto voce exchanges and the result is a vivid, honest, often comical vision of the most mysterious race on earth. One got the the impression Thubron did not much care for them and was glad to be going home.

Dead Man’s Chest (Faber £14.95) by Nicholas Rankin is a quite different kind of travelogue. Beginning in Edinburgh and ending in Samoa, Rankin dogs the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, as good


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a way as any ofseeing a large chunk of the world. Rankin is superb on Stevenson. and illumines his narrative with unobtrusive biography and an updating of myth, but he dwells rather too much on the details ofgetting from A to B and consequently is not consistently interesting on RLS’s many ports of call.

A similar criticism could be made

of Caryl Phillips The European Tree (Faber £7.95) and to some extent was by Jonathan Raban. Phillips was not so much interested in what places were like but how he, born in the West Indies, reacted to them, and they to him. It is an angry and bitter polemic, not as well-written as the author’s novels and it has curious vignettes particularly of James Baldwin and Miles Davis— but one’s sympathies were with the unhappy foreigner.

Frozen in Time (Bloomsbury £12.95) is the most remarkable book I have read all year. Usually

As Christmas approaches, our book special reviews some of the best books around. Plus great book prizes.

reviewers say books are unputdownable but this was one I eating. It is the story of the fate ofthe Franklin Expedition which in 1845 left Britain to discover a North-West passage. Not one of the 129 crewmen survived the arctic wastes and 138 yearslater Owen Beattie and John Geiger tell why. It is a remarkable, ghastly story, enhanced if that’s the right word by photographs of the bodies of three sailors, almost perfectly preserved in the frozen ground.

But more and more the ‘travel’ book is about internal journeys of was careful about when I picked it

Like many sedenta travellers, I ‘It' was Arabian Sands, published in hearing is bad but since he abominates

first encountered t e name

Thesiger at the end of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Mr Eric Newby’s modest, now classic account of a ioumey which took him from a Mayfair couturier’s to the wild mountains of Afghanistan. Newby and his com anion, Hugh Cariess were on the last ap of their trip when they spotted an Englishman with two villainous- lookin tribesmen. Who else could this be but esiger? Here was a man, wrote Newby, a throwback to the Victorian era, who had twice crossed the Empty Ouarter, a fluent speaker of Arabic, who had spent almost his entire life among primitive people.

Newby and Cariess camped with Thesi er that night. ‘England's going to pot,’ esigertold the innocents abroad. ‘Look at this shirt, I’ve only had it for three years, now it's splitting.’ Later he regaled them with surgical stories amon the Arabs. ‘Do you do lt?’ enquired ewby. ‘Cutting off fingers?’ ‘fiundreds of them,’ said Thesiger airily. ‘Lord, yes, Why the other day i took out an eye. i enjoyed that.’ It was time to turn in. flewb and

Cariess began to pump up air-be s. r

‘God on must be a pa said esi er.

Wilfred esiger was then 45 years old and already a legend. The intervening three decades have served only to enhance his re utatlon. When flewb met first met h m he was still to write rabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs, books which were to make his exploits common property, the stuff over which schoolboys drool.

‘i had absolutely no intention of writing at all,’ he confessed, ‘and had never done a ioumey with a view to writing about It, any more than I had taken a photograph with a view to

obllsh ng it. Apubllsher persuaded

lm to compile a book of his

hotographs and then twisted his arm

nto wrltln text to accompany them. ‘I went off to enmark in winter and took a bedsit. i worked on it for 4-5 months and broke the back of lt.’

oi pansies,’

1959, one of the masterpieces of the genre. lie has scarcely been prolific since but 1987 has been a particularly productive year for the reluctant author, with the publication of his best-seilln autobi raphy, A Life of My Choice (Co Iins £15 and a collection of spectacular photographs, Visions of a fiomad (Collins 220). Hence his visit to Edinburgh to face his readers, a fate he would happil have swopped for wrestling wit rabid crocodiles. Thesiger is 77 and the iron man displays slight signs of frailty. His

noise, particularly the man-made drone of motor bikes and aeroplanes, that perhaps is no great loss. He has the face of a wind-whi ped pedestrian, fined like a dried out r ver bed and capped monumentaily with the dog-leg nose of a boxer. It was broken in the ring at Oxford where he won a Blue consecutively for four ears.

That was on one of h s rare forays out of Africa. He was born in Ethiopia - which he still prefers to call Abysslnla and lived there until he was nine when came to England, going first to prep school, then Eton, then Oxford. But the

44 The List 27 Nov 10 Dec 1987