Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

zigzag james houstonZigzag: A Life on the Move by James Houston ~ 1998. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4208-6. 278 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

When we first visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 1988 to take in the controversial but beautifully presented special exhibition on First Nations art and culture,  The Spirit Sings, we were impressed by the huge mobile, four stories in length, that hangs in the open foyer of the museum. “You should see it when it’s working!” we were told; plagued by continual malfunctions in the sound and lighting system, the mobile was hanging dim and silent. When artist James Houston installed the work in the newly opened Glenbow back in 1976, it was lit by moving lights coordinated to the strains of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Falling. Though we visited the Glenbow numerous times during our Alberta sojourn, and again in 2005, we were never lucky enough to see the famed Aurora Borealis sculpture in its full glory, but it was a memorable sight nonetheless. (A bit more about the sculpture here. )

'Aurora Borealis', Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

‘Aurora Borealis’, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

Several of the anecdotes in Zigzag concern the design of Aurora Borealis, and Houston and his son John’s personal transportation of the fragile, 5 to 7 foot long acrylic crystal “needles” by U-Haul truck from Rhode Island to Alberta. I will be looking at the sculpture with fresh appreciation on our next visit. (We are hoping to visit sometime this summer, to take in the current M.C. Escher exhibit before its closure in August.)

Joan Givner wrote in B.C. Bookworld, 1998:

James Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paper bag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”

The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by. Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily.

 It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success. 

The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year. 

That anecdote about the paper bag filled with crumpled one dollar bills shows up in this collection of memoirs, as well as in the ending pages of Houston’s truncated account of his Arctic years, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. It obviously moved him deeply at the time; it also made a “good story” and that, in essence, is something that James Houston liked to have under his hat.

Houston’s memoirs skirt extremely closely to the “If you want to know how good he is, just ask him” school of autobiography, but they are saved by his occasional self-effacing comments. He turns the laugh on himself as needed, and his frankness and willingness to comment openly on extremely intimate matters give small but crucial insights into his character. Whether that character comes across as intended is another story altogether; I frequently feel that there is a lot being left out of Houston’s story of himself.

What he does share is quite fascinating. Through Houston’s brief vignettes in both Zigzag and the earlier Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, we get glimpses of the Inuit world from the mid 20th century to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. We also get glimpses of what made this extremely driven and creative man “tick”; his great love for and pride in his two sons, and his lifelong dependence on touching base with the natural world to refuel him for his bouts of big city-based creativity.

He was an iconic figure in more ways than one in the numerous spheres he seems to have effortlessly inhabited. I suspect he might also have been a rather arrogant man to have bumped up against if one did not share his high opinion of himself, but I bet a dinner party with Houston at the table would have been a memorable thing.

Zigzag was a very good read; it lost a point merely because the vignette-style format jumped around an awful lot (to be expected, one supposes, from the very title of the work) and left me frequently wanting more than I was given.

Another volume of memoir, Hideaway, about the author’s cabin on Haida Gwaii, followed Zigzag and Confessions to form a trilogy of sorts. I will be reading this one when I come across it.

A memorable Canadian and a very gifted man; a complex persona in so many ways.

James Houston passed away in 2005. His artistic and literary legacy lives on.

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Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business –  to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…

A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉

The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden –  and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.

extra virgin annie hawesExtra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.

Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.

This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.

Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.

I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.

Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.

I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.

Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.

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the roving i eric nicolThe Roving I by Eric Nicol ~ 1950. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1951. Hardcover. 134 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some inner debate.

I  am rather sad to have to say that much of the humour is groaningly dated in this one, but despite that single failing, I have a strong affection for Eric’s comic tale of his year on The Continent, some phrases of which are ingrained deeply into my memory. The more eloquent passages obviously resonated deeply when I first read this at an impressionable age.

The Roving I won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1951, which is commendable but not necessarily a guarantee of, well, of anything! The bits of Roving I which I am fondest of are the more serious bits, hidden beneath the sometimes-forced playfulness of the narrative.

Do I date myself when I assume that everyone knows who Eric Nicol is? As a middle-aged, mostly lifelong British Columbia resident, Vancouverite Nicol has somehow always been there, always on the edges of my awareness, a cultural constant. Exceedingly prolific throughout his writerly life, which began in college – he famously started his career by writing in the Ubyssey under the pen name of Jabez – Nicol went on to write more than 6000 newspaper columns for The Vancouver Province, as well as 40-odd books and a number of mostly-comic plays. Eric Nicol died in 2011, at the age of ninety-one, writing up until the end, despite battling the onset of Alzheimer’s. His last book, Script Tease, a collection of typically whimsical articles, was published in 2010.

But we’re going to go way back, to the early days, to Eric’s more youthful days as a young man after his WW II military service – three years in a non-combat role in the R.C.A.F. –  when he was taking advantage of an opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies for a year at the Sorbonne.

Here’s a sampling, from Chapter One: Debut of a Vagrant, at the start of the long train journey eastward to the embarkation point for ship travel to Europe.

The train lurches forward heavily, trying to take us all out by the roots at once. Mine hang on. Mine and those of the old couple across the aisle, who never thought of buying a newspaper because the news of the day was their being on the train, with a rope around their world.

Another good jerk does it. The station begins slowly to glide out under a full sail of flapping handkerchiefs. No, it’s us. We’re rolling. I and the fat lady sitting opposite me, reluctant to admit one another to the sudden vacuum of our existence, stare out the window at a grey and indifferent Vancouver. Oh, Vancouver, that I’ve given the best years of my life to, how can you dismiss me as though I were just another can of salmon? Is this how I’m to remember you, this motorist stymied by the crossing gate and glad to see the last of us? Couldn’t that woman stop hanging out her laundry for a minute? Is there no one to wave to us, on behalf of the city of Greater Vancouver?

Yes, by heaven! There she is. A little girl, a delegate at large, patting the air slowly and solemnly, making it last for the whole train. The fat lady and I wave back, and, relinquishing Vancouver, smile at each other, having in common someone we both said goodbye to…

That’s a fair sampling of Nicol’s style. Though occasionally it drops into sheer silliness, it is usually redeemed by clever, often very funny phrasings; the man did have – overused cliché fully applicable here – a way with words.

Eric Nicol’s books are quite easy to come by here in B.C., and are – here’s another cliché – well worth dipping into if you come across them in your travels, though some I find more enjoyable than others. The more hectic ones do seem to be trying a bit too hard, but there are little gems of delicious prose in each and every one. The Roving I is one of my personal favourites, a slight little period piece which captures a moment of time in a fast-moving world and frequently makes us smile at the infinite absurdities of life.

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safe haven larry gaudeSafe Haven: The Possibility of Sanctuary in an Unsafe World by Larry Gaudet ~ 2007. This edition: Random House, 2007. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-679-31383-0. 274 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10.


Here’s the promotional material from the publisher. Heads up for the predictably effusive tone.

“Sanctuary” is a beautiful word: philosophically rich, culturally intriguing and evocative of so much we cherish — protection, safety, contemplation, solitude. But lurking at the edges of this bright concept are some very dark associations: fear, paranoia, the slamming of gates to exclude the threat of other-ness. Whatever the word means to each of us, and whatever our ancestral legacies, the yearning for sanctuary is a malady we all share to varying degrees, a quest that is both our birthright and our affliction.

These are the assertions of award-winning author Larry Gaudet in Safe Haven, an unorthodox and highly engaging work of imaginative non-fiction. Sure to resonate with anyone who has dreamt of escaping from the pressures of the workaday world — that is, all of us — this book is a highly personal, funny and unflinchingly honest investigation of the power and allure of the idea of sanctuary.

Safe Haven begins and ends in the soft fog of coastal Nova Scotia, taking side trips into the ruined shrines of ancient Greece (with a fictional Bayou-born international spy serving as tour guide), journeying by rail through the frozen vistas and forlorn social realities of Canada’s north and dipping into Gaudet’s own Acadian heritage of displacement.

Booking a year for this project, Gaudet moved with his wife, Alison, and their two small boys to a newly constructed barn by the sea in the fictionally named community of Foggy Cove. His intent: to chart the meaning of sanctuary through the ages, using his family’s solitude as an idyllic jumping-off point. But the project becomes far more complicated than he’d envisioned, and far less idyllic. Envying his children who can oversee uncomplicated imaginary civilizations in a sandbox, Gaudet cannot shake the awareness that he is complicit in the very iniquities from which he seeks to shelter his family, from the environmental toll of their septic tank on this ecologically sensitive land, to the wince of a lobster he is about to boil for dinner. He must also contend with the guilt he feels for having hijacked his wife and children, potentially for naught. As Alison’s desire to return to the comforts and stimuli of urban life grows with every month spent in isolation, Gaudet knows their idyllic days in Foggy Cove are numbered.

In his search for the diverse meanings of sanctuary, Gaudet illuminates the dysfunctions and hidden costs of the way we live — and challenges us to find ways to bring down the walls that keep so many of us estranged from our own experiences. Safe Haven is an entertaining and illuminating romp through the fog-shrouded territory of sanctuary through ages and mythologies, guided by an engaging author who is not afraid to shine the light directly on his own fallible and highly likeable self.

My take:

This book is quite beautifully written, but my initial desire to totally enter into and embrace the author’s ideas was increasingly difficult to maintain as I learned more and more of the author’s personal life, and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Alison. This seems deeply troubled, and Gaudet’s continual apologies to Alison for dragging her way out to the wilds of Nova Scotia, despite her yearnings for her “real life” of urban sophistication in the city, felt very passive-aggressive in a “this marriage may have issues” sort of way. Or perhaps a cigar is just a cigar, and it was all stream-of-consciousness writing with no below-the-surface vibe breaking through.

Some fascinating stuff in here, all about the author’s most complicated life and how he got to where he is today, but the continual first-person referencing ruined it for me. If one counted up all of the “me”s and the “I”s in this one, they’d outnumber every other word ten to one. Or at least that is the impression I am left with.

So – basically a vanity project, with some gorgeous passages worth anthologizing, or at least quoting in a blog, except that I didn’t mark those pages and I am very ready to part ways with this book and return it to the library shelves. Here’s the thing: it is stamped “Received 2007” by the library, and it appears to have been unread until my checking out of it in 2013. Absolutely crisp and clean and tight. That’s five years, and no one has apparently touched it, except for me on one of my random-selection forays into the non-fiction aisles.

What does that mean, I wonder? It’s not a bad book; some parts are truly excellent. The man can definitely write. Maybe the pervasive (though most probably non-intentional) self-promoting tone has prevented this one from being truly likeable and accessible to the vast majority of those of us unable, through the results of our own career and lifestyle choices, or by those unpreventable twists of fate, to sit out on a sabbatical year in our second home and ponder on the deeper universal concepts implicit in our lifestyles.

Am I glad I invested the time in reading this? Sure. It was thought-provoking and life affirming and occasionally mildly amusing. A lot of Gaudet’s thoughts resonated deeply with me; I felt much the same when I had small children under my care, as he did when writing this book, all broody and protective and suspicious of the world’s vast potential for hurting those I love. And Gaudet’s cutting comments on the prevalence of “sanctuary porn” in our society were absolutely spot-on. I liked him the very best when he probed delicately and accurately on what we choose to divert ourselves with, and how we feed, and are fed, on the stuff of fantastical escapist dreams.

Would I read this book again? Not very darned likely. Unless, of course, it would be to mark out those few memorable passages for future reference. Long ago in another time of my life I kept a series of journals, in which I frequently noted down personally-appealing bits of other people’s writing; I no longer do that, but I thought of it while reading Safe Haven.

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Midnight on the Desert: chapters of autobiography by J.B. Priestley ~ 1937. This edition: Readers’ Union & William Heinemann Ltd., 1940. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10. Extremely hard to classify this book, but I found it completely engaging. The time theories near the end were completely over my head, but I appreciated Priestley’s enthusiasm nonetheless.


I had expected a travel book of sorts, and Midnight on the Desert could certainly fall under that classification, but it is also so very much more. An examination of what it means to be a writer and an artist; a critique of the state of the world in politics, religion, philosophy, architecture and the performing arts; an ode to nature; a manifesto for seeking the good in the world and overcoming adversity and “doing one’s part”; a record of observation by a keen and analytical observer.

I have been spinning out my reading of this marvelously unexpected gem, and have been racking my brains over how best to convey what this unique work is all about and why I found it so compelling. Words do not come easily to me, which is why I’m a reader and not a writer, aside from these attempts at distilling the essence of what I find on the printed page. Perhaps I will let Priestley speak for himself.

First, the “set-up”.

Let me begin with what I can remember quite clearly. It was the end of my stay on the ranch in Arizona, last winter…There was the usual accumulated litter of letters and odd papers to be gone through, and most of it to be destroyed. But that was not all. I had decided during the evening to burn certain chapters, many thousands of words, of the book I had been writing…Yes, thousands and thousands of words would have to go, along with the rubbish; good words, all arranged to make sound sense, and with a cash value in the market, and representing, too, something more than money – time, precious and priceless time, of which, they say, only so much is allotted to each of us. I dare not wait for morning. Midnight was the hour for such a deed.

The first chapter starts with an appreciation and evocation of a place dear to the author’s heart, a small writer’s hut at the edge of the desert on a guest ranch in the Mojave Desert, where Priestley had spent the better part of the winter. He describes the beauty and majesty of the still, clear desert night, and then branches of in a dozen different directions in a sort of free association of ideas – random – oh, yes! – but most clear and sensible – he never loses us in his side trips though we fetch up back at the beginning a mite breathless and dazed at the speed and scope of our journey.

The papers are not yet set alight, though the fire is lit and is roaring in the wood stove, but we are far away now from the desert, back in England, getting ready to set sail for America, at the beginning of this particular trip. The Atlantic is crossed, New York attained, and Priestley is off.

I told myself severely that for once I must take New York quietly, as just another city. I had some work to do – to produce my play – but I must do that work as calmly as if I were at home in London. (I overlooked the fact that it is quite impossible for me to produce a play calmly anywhere; for that mad old witch, the Theatre, tolerates no calmness…)

… All other cities … seem in retrospect like mere huddles of mud huts. Here .. be Babylon and Nineveh in steel and concrete, the island of shining towers, all the urban poetry of our time … I would hurry down these canyons and gulfs they call avenues, cry out as one magnificent vista of towers crowns another, hold my breath at nightfall to see the glittering palaces in the sky, and wonder how I can ever again endure the gloomy and stunted London …

… There is a deep inner excitement, like that of a famished lover waiting for his mistress, that I cannot account for – not when it outlasts the mere novelty of arrival, and goes on week after week … I would begin to feel empty inside. It would be impossible for me to sit still and be quiet. I must go somewhere, eat and drink with a crowd, see a show, make a noise. Time must not merely be killed, but savagely murdered in public. In this mood, which has never missed me yet in New York, I feel a strange apprehension, unknown to me in any other place. The city assumes a queer menacing aspect … I begin to fancy that perhaps it is waiting for some other kind of people – chromium-plated giants without dreams or tenderness – to come along and claim it …

.. I feel like a midget character moving in an early scene of some immense tragedy, as if I had had a glimpse in some dream, years ago, of the final desolation of this city, of sea-birds mewing and nesting in these ruined avenues. Familiar figures of the streets begin to move in some dance of death. That baker outside the Broadway burlesque show, whose voice has almost rusted away from inviting you day and night to step inside and see the girls, now seems a sad demon croaking in Hell. The traffic’s din sounds like the drums in the March to the Gallows of a Symphonie Fantastique infinitely greater, wilder, more despairing than Berlioz’. Yes, this is all very fanciful, of course, the literary mind playing with images; yet the mood behind it, that feeling of spiritual desolation, that deepening despair, are real enough…

That was the distillation of, let’s see, four pages or so, and the man can keep it up indefinitely. He turns the same sort of passionate stream-of-consciousness writing to everything he observes and experiences. Further along in the book we are treated to similar digressions on The Theatre and the experience of working as a novelist-dramatist taking the written word to the stage, and about the challenges of being an author in general, and the quest to both satisfy the inner urge to record and create, and to fulfill the ever-difficult goal of please one’s readers.

Give us, please, you cry, the real world, not some triviality taking place in a pretty-pretty imaginary world, no mere escape stuff. Certainly, madam; certainly, sir. Now what is happening in this real world? The Communists and Fascists are demonstrating and counter-demonstrating, preparing for a fight; the economic system of our fathers is breaking down; Europe is bristling with armaments and gigantic intolerances, Asia is stirring out of her ancient dream, America is bewildered and bitter; one kind of civilization is rapidly vanishing and God-knows-what is taking its place; some men are marching in column of fours, shouting slogans, and making ready to kill and be killed; some men – many of them in exile because their minds are honest and not without distinction – are arguing in a melancholy circle; other men are lining up in hope of finding a little bread, a little work, a little peace of mind.

And Priestley goes on:

But no, no, no, this will not do, you tell us: you want a novel, a fiction to take you out of yourselves, not a newspaper, a fat pamphlet, a slab of propaganda. After all, private life goes on; men still fall in love, women fall out of it; there are entertaining quarrels between the Smiths and the Robinsons; young men are suddenly promoted and girls are given fur coats and diamond bracelets; and there is still plenty of comic stuff about – oh, uproariously comic stuff. This being so, get on with your novel, and don’t give yourself airs, don’t come over the propagandist, the gloomy prophet, over us.

… You may be sure that whatever he [the author] decides, he will be blamed. He may succeed in displeasing everybody. Lucky enough in other respects, I have been unlucky in this. Some years ago, because I had long cherished the plan and was now in the mood to work it out, I wrote a long, comic, picaresque, a fairy-tale sort of novel, called The Good Companions. I am neither prouder nor more ashamed of having written it than I am of having written any of the other books and plays under my name. But it happened to achieve an astonishing popularity. Since then – and this s an exact statement – I do not think I have met or corresponded with five-and-twenty persons who have not blamed me, either for having written this particular novel, or for not having written a lot of other novels just like it. One party denounces me as a hearty, insensitive lowbrow. The other party asks what the devil I mean by turning myself into a gloomy highbrow … I am condemned – and for a long term, it seems – to offend all round … No wonder, then, my new novel needed some thinking out. I was not bored on those trains …

Travelling by train, observing every fellow human being he comes across, from baggage car attendant to well-preserved and painted elderly matron sharing the dining room, Priestley goes off on more tangents, such as the difficulties of being an American woman, never being allowed to drop your eyes from your goal of “keeping up” for a moment; then looking out the window, asit were, to the American landscape itself and the need for painters, writers and poets to develop to capture its unique quality – the processes of developing a regional form of the arts, true to the physical space which inspires the artists.

Odes to the great physical beauty of the American West are in this book – the deserts and mountains, the Grand Canyon, the stark glories of rock and sand and rivers carving out their otherworldly sculptures. Priestley is in love with this aspect of America, and he sings his praises most eloquently well.

What a fascinating book; what a full book. One to read right through without stopping; one to tackle in small bits, to digest and mull over and agree with and occasionally refute. Not all that much autobiography, despite the tag on the title, but many insights into what went on in the mind of this deeply creative and opinionated man.

An excellent read; a grand glimpse into the mind of a master writer.

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Mention My Name in Mombasa: The Unscheduled Adventures of an American Family Abroad by Maureen Daly McGivern & William McGivern ~ 1958. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1958. First Edition. Hardcover. 312 pages.

My rating: 7/10.


This is a most interesting read; a travel memoir with a very 1950s’ feel – not surprising, seeing as it is a 1950s’ book! I enjoyed it.

The authors were literary figures of their time, and the travels herein described were, it seems from a few comments here and there, both to fulfill a personal desire for wanderlust and to collect material for future books, including this one.

If the name Maureen Daly rings a bell, it is most likely because of her extremely successful young adult novel, Seventeenth Summer, written when the author was herself just seventeen, and published in 1942. Some years later we find Maureen married to fellow writer William McGivern, a successful writer of crime-mystery novels (The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, war novel Soldiers of ’44, and almost 20 more) and film and television scriptwriter (Kojak, Adam-12, and Ben Casey, among others). They had their two children along, 6-year-old Megan and 2-year-old Patrick, when they left New York on New Year’s Eve to travel to Paris, the start of their extended travels.

Long, detailed and quite enthralling chapters describe the scenery, culture and especially the unique individuals the McGiverns came into contact with. The tone is a mixture of worldly-wise (but never condescending), travel guide (but merely to lay out the scene), and very 1950s’ American superiority (but innocent of bluster so therefore non-jarring – at least for the most part). The McGiverns were very eager to give credit where it was due regarding the superior aspects of their temporary homes and tourist destinations, which included Paris, and then a stay in the tiny fishing village of Torremolinos near Málaga, Spain, just on the verge of its discovery and development as a winter-tourist hotspot.

Then come several chapters on Spanish bullfighting, bullfighters and the ranches which raise and train the bulls. The tone here is journalistically non-judgemental much of the time; I never did get a grasp of whether the McGiverns were fully behind the “sport”, though from the farcical descriptions of a number of stereotypical bullfight aficionados which graces one of the chapters, I suspect they had marginally more sympathy for the bovine members of that elite yet widely populist pastime.

Next is a short visit (and hence a short chapter) in Gibraltar, where the McGiverns are rather disappointed in the elusiveness of the famous apes. On to Iceland, and a very travel-guide chapter this is, with loads of facts thrown at the reader, interspersed with short vignettes of some of the US Army families living on the vast NATO air base, and native Icelanders who opened their homes to our travellers.

Then comes the most memorable chapter of the book. During World War II, William had served as a US Army gunner in the European campaign, and his platoon had ended up entrenched on the mountainside near the tiny Belgian village of Fraipont, where the local people showed such generosity and warmth to their American allies that William had long planned to return in more peaceful times. Just over ten years later that sentimental visit took place, with the villagers overjoyed to recognize William and welcome his family. A poignant reminder that the war was not all that far in the past when this pilgrimage took place.

Back to Spain, and then a four-day voyage to the Canary Islands, a visit which seems not to have quite met the high expectations of the romance of the name. On to Morocco, where the McGiverns have several pleasant surprises regarding the locals, and then to Nigeria, on the cusp of independence as a full member of the British Commonwealth, after decades of colonial occupation.

A safari to Abadjan on the Ivory Coast and then to Fort Lamy in Chad doesn’t quite go as expected, but there are compensations in the people who the McGiverns meet as they wait for their travel visas to gain approval from the local bureaucracy. This does not happen, so back to Spain, through France, Belgium, and over to Ireland, where the Daly family is waiting to welcome their wayward relative and her family for an extended visit. Several months in Dublin follow, and then the trip is wound up, with a return to New York over a year after the original departure.

In this book there is a strong sense of how good it is to be an American at this point in history, and how welcome the traveller from the U.S.A. both feels and is made to feel; the McGiverns travel in their French-bought Citroën plastered with American flags fore and aft, and seldom seem to meet with a cold shoulder. Quite a change in the ensuing fifty years!

This is a fine book, and a literary time capsule of the post-war era, before things started to go wrong for the U.S.A., politically speaking.

I suspect it may be hard to come by (I ordered mine for a rather large sum from an online rare book dealer, for the Maureen Daly connection) but if your library happens to have a copy hidden in the stacks, or if you chance upon it in a used book store, it is well worth delving into.

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Departures and Arrivals by Eric Newby ~ 1999. This edition: The Lyons Press, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58576-224-4. 192 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Some decent essays but not enough of them to swing the balance between “fair” and “very good” reading. A lot of reciting of railway schedules, and short, out of context snippets about trips which blurred together after a while. Travel writing “lite”. I expected more from this writer.


A few essays into this book I was thinking to myself, “Okay, these are obviously excerpts from other works. Where’s the reference page?” Looking through the front and back material, there was no indication that this was the case; it apparently is a stand-alone collection of (mostly) travel tales and short reminiscences of the writer’s earlier life.

There is no context given more many of the trips referenced, which I found disconcerting. “Flying into Coober Pedy…” Yes – okay – so you’re in Australia – but WHY are you there? What bigger trip is this part of? And aside from discovering that opal miners like to be paid in cash, and certain of them have a fondness for personal architecture such as a revolving bed surrounded by mirrors, what other memorable things did you find there that we, your readers, might be interested in?

Though there are well-written, interesting, and amusing passages, the whole thing feels like a selection of truncated pages from a personal journal, bits and pieces of information jotted down in transit to aid in later memory of the trip. Perhaps it is, worked up with a minimum of added information.

I suspect this is a book which was commissioned and published on the strength of the author’s earlier, and much stronger, efforts. A case of selling the name, not the content.

It was readable, but  vaguely unsatisfying. One to borrow from the library for light diversion, hotel room reading on a road trip (which is how I’ve just experienced it), but I’m not left with an urge to rush out to buy it. Not recommended, unless you come by it for a bargain basement price.

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