Beyond the Blue Horizon by Alexander Frater ~ 1986. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-010065-2. 430 pages.
My rating: 9.75/10
The tiniest bit of transitioning muddle here and there lost the 1/4 point. Nothing at all serious, but just frequent enough to very occasionally interrupt the otherwise seamless flow.
Okay, this one came (flew in?) from way out in left field.
Or, to be completely accurate, the slightly ho-hum Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, B.C. I sometimes pop in there when passing through in my travels, mostly because it is conveniently located right next to the village’s premier (only?) coffee house, the Chartreuse Moose, which, at two hours driving time from home, is a perfect quick stop for a beverage in a take-out cup to see one on the next few hours of travel when heading for points to the south.
Where was I? Oh yes, Nuthatch Books. The bookstore itself is very average, with mostly new stuff, and a fairish quantity of used. Stiffish prices on the second hand books, and not much in the way of a vintage selection, but I’ve picked up a few interesting things there now and then. Such as this book, which was a complete impulse buy, inspired by the promising title and a lightning-quick random-passage read. In this case, the book hunter’s instinct was rewarded. This was great.
From the back cover:
The romance and breathtaking of the legendary Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – the world’s longest and most adventurous scheduled air route – relived fifty years later in one of the most original travel books of the decade.
‘Whether being mown down by stampeding Baghdad-bound passengers in Cairo airport, or battling with Indian Airline staff (and failing) to reconfirm six vital going-on flights from Delhi, or being lured unwittingly into a souvenir shop selling pornographic wood carvings in Lombok, or hitting tropical cyclone Ferdinand in a 748 en route from Sumba to Bali, Frater rises above it all with humour, style and a wonderfully sharp eye’ – Christopher Matthew in the London Standard
The front cover of my Penguin paperback is emblazoned with the overly-familiar Theroux comparison – I quite like most of Theroux’s travel writing, but for goodness sake – can’t we occasionally reference someone else?! – and despite the initial annoyance this triggered, I found myself having to agree. Alexander Frater does share many of the best writerly qualities of Paul Theroux, though Frater’s voice is distinctively his own.
I’m coming at this rather backwards, for no doubt if you’ve made it this far you’re wondering what the heck Beyond the Blue Horizon is actually about.
It’s simple-ish. It’s an attempted recreation of an old commercial flight path from England to Australia, via Northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and South Asia, taking modern commercial flights and touching down at each and every one of the destinations referenced in the flight paths of the venerable Imperial Airways Eastbound Airways Service in its 1920s-30s heyday, when such a journey was referred to, aptly, as a “voyage”, and was more akin to a leisurely ocean journey in a luxury liner than to the sardine-can-squished, as-much-as-possible-non-stop, strictly-transportation experiences of today.
Back in the day, the trip from London to Brisbane by air took two weeks, with something like 35 way stops. Most flying was undertaken in the daylight hours, and passengers and crew slept each night in generally quite posh hotels, many of which were purpose-built to serve the airways trade, much in the way that the great railway hotels of North America were constructed as an adjunct to the leisurely upper-class train travel of a similar period.
Though definitely plotted with a book-in-mind – Frater was a well-respected travel writer and journalist well in successful mid-career when he embarked on this project – Beyond the Blue Horizon doesn’t feel terribly manufactured-for-sale, mostly because Frater is a true airplane enthusiast and a grand people person and an accomplished journalist, and he writes this slightly unlikely journey up in the most engaging way. He did his research first, lined up appropriate people to interview at pertinent points in his journey, and assembled a comprehensive number of long-ago accounts of air travel, which I wish could have been included in a bibliography, because the excerpts we are given are frequently intriguing.
Accounts of Frater’s trip are interspersed with accounts of long-ago flights covering the same bits of territory, and this is where my only complaint comes in. There are so many different references to so many different pilots, travellers, airplanes and airlines that I occasionally got a bit lost among all the reminiscences, and had to back up an reread the passages where Frater connects the now to the then of each particular bit of his journey. But it always came right, and the juxtaposition of experiences absolutely made this book, so it’s a very minor demerit point given to an otherwise excellent bit of travel lit.
Though I admire the concept of airplanes, I am not a comfortable flyer myself, and I read Beyond the Blue Horizon like I read accounts of mountaineering, or of sailing in small boats across the vast wastes of ocean – with admiration and interest but with no desire at all to emulate the experience. Writers who can keep me engaged in something so foreign to my personal comfort zone are quite rare, and greatly appreciated when found. Alexander Frater gets a shiny gold star from me for this one, and I already have a second journey-book by him purring promisingly on my bedside bookshelf: Chasing the Monsoon, 1990, in which Frater leaves rainy England for even more rainy India.
Frater’s writing in Beyond the Blue Horizon is no less than excellent. He combines sober statistics with revealing asides in which his inner keenness comes out all schoolboy enthusiastic and highly likeable, and he wanders off topic just enough to keep things continually engaging.
Frater also has a vast inner knowledge of the sort of esoterica in his chosen area of devotion which one comes across in other fields of interest, such as train buffs and vintage car people and those single-breed dog/cat/horse/you-name-it enthusiasts who occasionally, revealingly, let themselves go a little too far for the audience at hand, causing one to glance furtively about for an exit opportunity to escape the intensity of the one-topic conversationalist.
Frater never goes too far.