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Discarding Tess and other travel reading tales

 

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When I travel I like to try to immerse myself in cultures or countries by reading fiction or non-fiction that is set where I’m visiting. I finally finished a Hemingway novel recently while on a tour in Northern Spain. As we progressed from Pamplona to Logrongo and on to San Sebastián, the trials and tribulations of Hemingway’s emotionally tortured ex-pats Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley dwelt in my mind. As we reached the yard in Pamplona that holds the penned bulls and progressed along the then empty streets, echoes of the real running of the bulls and of Hemingway’s young matador, Romero, came to me. Inevitably reading (or watching) a tale that’s set somewhere you’ve been gives you a thrill, or brings a deeper understanding of characters, context and story. Especially where place is a strong character in itself. Some stories could be set anywhere for all the effort the author makes to ground the tale in a particular place and time, but others are inextricably linked to their setting. 

 The first and only time (so far) that I’ve visited England, I brought along Hardy’s iconic Tess of the d’Ubervilles, which I’d never managed to read before (despite taking a Hardy elective in literature at Uni). My friend and I wound our way past hedgerows and along backroads to Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, where we came to the cob and thatch cottage home of Hardy’s childhood and stooped our heads (a lot, in the case of my friend) to fit under the doorway and shuffled up the narrow, rickety staircase. Visiting the house of Hardy’s beginnings helped me picture a life and times far distant from my own. It also helped me picture the author at work. However in regards to his books, unfortunately, the victimisation of Tess and the looming sense of deep tragedy was too much for me, wandering far from home and to stop myself descending into a depressed stupor I had to get rid of that book half-finished. One day I hope to have the stamina to reach the Stonehenge scene, but after ten years, I still haven’t resumed Tess’ story since I abandoned her in Bath. In my mind she is perpetually stuck in the middle of her sad tale.

 At the time, I moved on from Tess to a book about the Georgian princesses. This was also somewhat depressing, but more in the manner of a ghoulish accident that you can’t help stopping to gawk at. I discovered just how many wives of Georgian kings were made unhappy, locked up and declared insane (to get them out of the way) and how many sisters of the kings remained spinsters. All in all they were not a happy lot, although nor were their dissolute husbands and brothers. Certainly the lives of royals otherwise just names and numbers came to life through the pages and, coupled with visits to places such as the Tower of London, gave me a greater sense of gratitude about being born when and where I was. Sometimes western freedoms of job choice, living situations, hobbies and products available can almost seem a burden of choice, but in contrast so many people’s lives have been so constricted by culture, family and circumstances of birth that I was faced anew with the amazing gift of the freedoms I enjoy. 

 On my recent trip to Europe I determined to read a book relating to each country I visited. Travelers in the 19th century had available to them the ‘Miniature Library’, which included seminal works such as The Bible, poetry and French and German Dictionaries, cultural touchstones to take with them into new situations. For this trip I mainly traveled with e-books on my tablet and rather than carrying the familiar or the exalted with me, looked to gain insights into another cultural mind through the porthole of the book. My main criteria for the books I chose to download was that they should provide factual information about the country, its people and culture, intertwined with highly readable personal memoir or travel anecdotes or well-written literary fiction. The first book I chose was The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth, a non-fiction analysis which covers five ‘nordic’ countries and so covered off three that I was visiting: Denmark, Sweden and Finland. The author, as an ex-pat married to a Dane, was observing one culture he’d married into and a country he’d lived in, and other countries he had traveled to and spent various time in. I gleaned a lot of social observations and was able to delve further into the history and motivations behind these cultural expressions through this book. Everything from the hot tub phenomenon to Santa Claus was covered in the pages. I’m not sure if it helped me relate to those I met more sensitively but it certainly kept me informed – and his reflection about the prevalence of hot tubs in Swedish households did prove true in my personal experience. I was also supplied with various trivia I could raise later in conversations, although I must admit to having forgotten a large part of it 6 months on, perhaps I was too distracted by all the wonderful art galleries I visited in those countries and need to re-read his book now I’m back in the midst of ordinary life. 

 Most important of all in travel writing is humour. Whether an author is writing about their own country or a country they travel through, if they can do it with a humorous perspective they’ve succeeded in my book. All that I ever knew about the phenomenon known as Nordic Walking, I learnt from the relevant chapter in Adam Fletcher’s Make me German. I purchased a dual German/English version of the book for some friends who had just moved to Germany. This book definitely provided the most humorous observations of any book I read this trip. I have an attraction to strange cultural practices and so take delight in other people’s observations of them in all their splendidly eccentric minute detail. Michael Moran’s descriptions of attending and running training conferences at a location in rural 1990’s Poland in A country in the moon were also humorous and prove how much stranger truth can be than fiction. 

 When we’re back at home travel writing can help take us on a journey of the imagination or provide destinations to add to our real world travel wish lists. So what can reading travel writing do for us while we’re actually traveling? Sometimes it provides information about places we’ve been, in addition to tours or guide books, or it explains practices or sights that were culturally strange to us. Good travel writing provides more than just the present moment, it gives us the wider historical and perhaps political and social context that we need to understand why a nation and its people are the way they are, and where this is a world a way from our own experience, it gives us hints as to how to relate to people. Most of all it does put us in the shoes of actual people and show something of what it is like to be a citizen of a particular country, it helps us get inside an experience we will never fully be able to have for ourselves as someone born elsewhere speaking another language with a different experience of family, work, war and peace. Good travel writing should help us be human.

 

For my last trip I hoped to read one book for each of the eleven countries I visited. I’m still looking for books that fit my criteria that cover the Netherlands, Belgium and Estonia. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. 

 
Some books I’ve read while traveling: 

ENGLAND

  • The Georgian Princesses – John Van der Kiste
  • Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

SWEDEN, DENMARK, NORWAY, FINLAND, ICELAND

  • The almost nearly perfect people – Michael Booth

POLAND

  • A country in the moon – Michael Moran

GERMANY

  • Make me German – Adam Fletcher
  • Germania – 

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • Me, myself and Prague – Rachael Weiss

PORTUGAL

  • Journey to Portugal – José Saramago

SPAIN

  • Spain – Jan Morris
  • The Sun also rises – Ernest Hemingway
  • Tales of the Alhambra – Washington Irving

Reading around on blogs I just discovered the weekly travel themes over at Where’s my backpack and realise my post fits the weekly Travel theme: Books https://wheresmybackpack.com/2016/04/15/travel-theme-books/

 

 

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Social justice rock ‘n’ roll, rugby league & archaeology: Heroes from childhood

Stained glass window with image of knight, Tower of London

Who are our heroes? Who do we look up to and why? The strong? The talented? The verbally skilled? The Everyman/woman? Who inspired you when you were a child? Kings, knights, super heroes, princesses, librarians, veterinarians, chefs or vegetarians? Here are five of my disparate childhood heroes. Who were some of yours?

1. Katharine Hepburn 

To my mind she was a woman and an actress ahead of her time: she wore pants a lot in the movies when the other women wore dresses, after her initial short-lived marriage, she never married again, but had a series of unconventional relationships. In movies she was sporting (Pat & Mike), opinionated (The Philadelphia Story) and spirited (Bringing up Baby). Her appearance and her voice were a bit out of the ordinary – she was striking with her pronounced cheekbones and sharp voice and had a strong presence on screen. Personally she had her fair share of tragedy, but she had a long career of roles spanning nearly 70 years, from roles of naïve young women (A Bill of Divorcement) through to elderly (but still spirited) women (On Golden Pond). Her long life included her lengthy and unconventional relationship with Spencer Tracy, who she also played opposite in a number of great movies, including Desk Set, from which film I learnt incidentally all about what a palindrome was! And it never hurt that she also made a number of her earlier films opposite the charming and handsome Cary Grant. To me she was a unique and versatile actress and a role model for women.

2. Peter Sterling

In a completely different vein, I believe my mother was horrified when I got into rugby league as a child (I started watching it because it came on TV after my regularly scheduled viewing of Nancy Drew). Peter Sterling was the half-back for the Parramatta Eels rugby league team during the main period in which I watched rugby. I was drawn to him because he was small and fast (not like some of the players in the other positions who were big and bulky and built for scrums) and he seemed to be everywhere on the field weaving in and out and scoring points. Even if he was tackled by someone larger, he always seemed to come out fighting. During the 1980’s when Parramatta won a number of premierships, he was a star player and I always wished girls could play rugby league too.

3. Spy vs Spy

Sydney indie ska/rock band Spy v Spy were amongst my childhood rock and roll heroes. As a kid I really questioned why everyone seemed to write those ‘boring love songs’. Why were so many songs about love (or sex)? Wasn’t there anything else in the world to write about other than broken hearts or love hearts? Spy vs spy wrote and sang about individual and social injustice. With their rock guitar sound, they put power behind the plight of murder victims, the homeless and marginalised and asked questions about our society. I had all their albums on vinyl and got to see them live once. The combination of the energetic, powerful guitar and drum-driven sound and their political message drew me in, and I thought Doc Martens were cool after having a poster of the Spies wearing Docs on my wall. I wanted to grow up to play rock guitar in a band and sing about the world’s injustices.

4. George from the Famous Five

I always thought Anne was wet: she did dishes and made meals and was kept out of the ‘dangerous’ aspects of the Famous Five adventures by her older brothers, Julian and Dick. They tried to keep George out too, but she embraced adventure and refused to conform to stereotypes of obedient young women of the time. Coming from my own time, I was incensed that the boys would try to exclude her from adventures and that she would be expected to instead attend to domestic matters. She was a tom boy, a spirited heroine who spoke her mind and, with her dog Timmy, she ran headlong into the heart of any mystery. She never wore dresses and I went through an anti-dress phase, seeing it as a form of anti-feminist oppression. I’ve since reconciled with dresses, but my admiration for George’s spiritedness lives on.

5. Indiana Jones

When I got to University and first joined the Archaeological society, I discovered that along with me, most others had been inspired to study archaeology after we were brought up on a childhood diet of Indiana Jones movies – especially Raiders of the Lost Ark. During the course of studying archaeology we learnt that what Indiana Jones was doing was actually ‘treasure hunting’, where he looked for particular objects and scandalously ripped them from their cultural context with no regard for stratigraphy. However, he made history and archaeology seem cool and brought the past to life, so he remained my dusty book-learning, action-embracing hero.

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Unearthing forgotten treasure titles

Bookshop window in Rüdesheim, a town on the Rhein, Germany

When I go treasure hunting I don’t take a spade, although a dust mask would be useful. You never know what priceless volumes you will uncover in a second-hand bookshop! I know, I know, many people are eschewing paper publications and just downloading their reading matter straight to a device (and I have been known to do this too), but the second-hand bookshop remains a treasure trove. In a bookshop, you can sort through all manner of bizarre titles – the Russian scientific publication analysis of the sex life of silkworms seemed like a particularly inappropriate book to be trying to sell in the bookshop in a small NSW rural town – although maybe it was someone’s holiday reading… I love the strange bedfellows that bookshops create, like in the bookshop window in Germany where Elvis kept company with JFK, Martin Luther Goethe, wine and puppies. You can truly browse in a bookshop, and you might come across something that you never would otherwise have found if you just stuck to your own genre favourites. Some of these treasures come super cheap too – but their worth is inestimable.

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Holding out hope for horses and humans

Wild horses in NT

I made a major commitment recently…a commitment to watching all seven seasons of the Canadian young adult horse-rescue ranch TV drama series ‘Heartland’. What led me to this viewing choice, some might ask – knowing that I am not a young adult, don’t have any teenagers in the house and don’t live on a horse ranch – oh, and I’m not Canadian either. I have been completely enthralled by this show and have stayed with it for the long haul, due to the likeable characters, storylines and picturesque scenery. But what drew me to this show in the first place came straight from my childhood – a childhood steeped in horse lore.

Many girls go through a ‘horse stage’. There seems to be a magnetic attraction between young women and horses, even when the young women concerned have barely had any contact with actual horses. In fact one genre off-shoot of the horsey novel is that of the city girl who comes to the country, has some sort of epiphany and learns to ride a horse and face life issues plot line. Anyone who has read a children’s or young adult horse novel will also know that there is a particular sub-genre concerned with rescuing, training and re-homing unwanted, abused or elderly horses. I still have a lot of my childhood horse novels on my bookshelf, although my mother did persuade me to part with some. When I look at Follyfoot, Monica Dickens’ tales of a British ‘Rest Home for Retired Horses’, I see many similar themes between the core of that series and Heartland: issues of fair treatment of animals, understanding the psychology of animals and people and issues of morality and justice. Other horse books show people bonding with one another over their love of horses (Jo Furminger’s Blackbirds series), or girls developing a close bond with their horses (Christine Pullein Thompson’s Phantom Horse series, Patricia Leitch’s Jinny books or Sharon Wagner’s Gypsy series).

What is it particularly about horses and girls? One thing about riding horses is children gaining technical competency: learning the art of riding and learning to care for a horse and horse tack. In a world where western children are very protected, gaining practical skills sometimes reserved for adults, can be empowering. Coupled with this there is a sense of freedom about riding – it’s safer than walking alone and you can gallop away from danger (apparently – unless there are guns!). Then there is the enticing wild spirit of the horse, seen in a series like Elyne Mitchell’s Brumbies. It’s hard to forget visual scenes like the one at the end of the first ‘The Man from Snowy River’ movie where dozens of the mountain horses gallop down what looks like a sheer cliff. One of the first non-fiction books I ever owned was a big glossy book called ‘A world of horses’ by Anne Charlish. It contains big double-page spreads of horses galloping, hoofs pounding, mud or water spraying out, manes flying, heads proudly lifted high. The noble steed!

Then there is horse trivia. Another book I had was a little yellow fact book and I had the horse one from this series. From this book I learnt words like ‘palomino’, ‘skewbald’ and ‘piebald’. The colour or breed of a horse finds its way into the heart of many tales, from Black Beauty to Ghost Horse. And horse sculptures – I’ve got a shelf of them. When my grandparents went to China they brought me back a miniature reproduction ceramic entombed warriors horse, which sat alongside my brass horse and the green horse head cologne bottle I probably picked up at an op shop. When I went to Denmark, I brought back two signature red and white wooden horses. About eight horse sculptures from different countries or traditions trotted along my book shelves together.

In the midst of my childhood horsey time, I did actually have some riding lessons. I remember learning how to hold the reins and mastering the rising trot. I didn’t have the lessons for very long though and since then I’ve only been on the occasional trail ride, but some vestige of the mystique of horses has stayed with me.

In ‘Heartland’, young Amy Fleming trains horses with problems, gaining their trust and mending their ways. Along the way she often heals the traumas of their riders, who sometimes have more of an issue than the horses. Amy’s bond and gentleness with the horses is magnetic, as well as the way she stands up for the animals, who can’t voice their own concerns, fears or troubles. She trains the horses in the context of a loving, but often dysfunctional, family ranch. The relationships between the humans, including various romances, are as interesting as their bonds with the horses. In the end I see the themes of freedom, love and justice in this series, as I’ve seen them in many of the horse tales that have gone before them. I think seeing the germs of these themes in my youthful equine phase has drawn me back again to the world of the horse. As well as freedom, love, and justice, I see great hope in ‘Heartland’ – hope for wounded horses to heal and hope for hurting and broken people to change. Watching people and animals change and grow, although it may sound sappy, helps give me hope that as people we really can change and grow in ourselves and to keep holding out this hope for ourselves and for others.

This has been today’s personal Baggage Check – brought to you by the many beloved ponies who had their manes plaited, and who carried their young riders over jumps, through gymkhanas and dressage competitions on the pages of young adult  novels, before galloping off along the beach into the sunset.

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Childhood in the ‘burbs: books, plants & the occasional cat drama

Camellia

When I was twelve, I embraced mess. To get from the door to my bed you had to clear a yellow brick road through the heaps of clothes, art supplies and toys. It was like a fantasy quest where you have to discover the path to the palace. My room wasn’t really a bedroom. It was actually the sun room and had five windows and three doors – with at least one door or window on every wall of the room! Not a lot of privacy when you think about it. Two of the doors were opaque glass doors that opened into the dining room. We kept these closed. The other door opened onto the family room, which had once been an outdoor verandah. Two windows looked out onto the seasons of the Hydrangeas in the side garden, bulging with green growth in spring as they impinged on the path, blooming prolifically with their large blue, purple or white multi-flower heads in summer. In winter they lost all their leaves and were pruned, leaving behind a view into the neighbour’s yard. The three windows on the other wall looked out on the back garden, an expanse of green lawn, a dominating magnolia that spread its limbs wide across the yard, and the hills hoist, clothesline icon of the Australian backyard.

I’ve always loved libraries. This love has led me to try to re-create a library in bedrooms or houses I’ve lived in. Towering over my against the walls of my bedroom were as many bookcases as I could fit in the room. All my treasured classics, early childhood picture books, horse stories, sci-fi and fantasy young adult novels, and every novel I could find about kids in clubs and ‘gangs’. Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers, the Lone Pine club and more. I loved our public library with its dark ‘stacks’ full of old hard cover books, where you had to turn a handle to separate the shelves and reveal access to these treasures. Apart from that inspiration, my parents also kept books. Mum had shelves full of Aristophanes and Thucydides, Goethe and Dante, books on Dali and Mondrian and cook books. They were in the hallway and the study in tall dark shelves. Dad’s books were on psychology, movies and radio in the study, and in their bedroom there was an old case with glass doors that opened when the key turned to reveal his childhood favourites: Biggles, H.G. Wells and school tales.

There were no books in the lounge room at the front of the house, it was dominated by a baby grand piano – rarely played – an ancestor’s beloved instrument. It was under this very piano where one day my cat rushed in, bird in mouth, and started to pluck the poor creature in front of the shocked eyes of my brother and my visiting grandparents. That’s the price you pay for having an over-engineered, wooden cat door that the two cats can’t actually push open – hence it has to stay permanently open.

Our house wasn’t usually witness to any kind of violence. The street was a pretty quiet one. There were elderly neighbours, a few bachelors and some families. From the front window of our lounge, you could look out across glossy green leaves and pink perfect camellia blossoms, and when they had been pruned you could look out over the street – as we lived on the high side – and see far away the tops of the fireworks on Sydney harbour on New Year’s Eve.

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