Mustn’t Grumble: An Accidental Return to England
First Pass Under Heaven
Nathan Hoturoa Gray
You Must Die Once
Ian D Robinson
If you’d asked me a while ago what constituted a great travel book, I’d have been able to rattle off a glib definition. Now after a solid couple of weeks reading travel books, I’m no longer confident I know what makes a great or even a good travel book. But I do know it’s not any of these I have just read.
It’s not that they don’t all, in some way, do the right sort of things, the things that other travel books do – they do. And it’s not as if there aren’t interesting bits in all of them – there are. But somehow, overall, it wasn’t enough.
Mustn’t Grumble: An Accidental Return to England has an interesting premise. Newspaper columnist and author Joe Bennett, an Englishman but long-time New Zealand resident, returns to his homeland, following in the footsteps of the famed English travel writer, H V Morton. (Morton meandered around Britain in 1926 and produced the bestselling In Search of England.) So, as ideas go for shaping a travel book, this is a good one (although it clearly wasn’t accidental). Bennett is game enough to include his missteps: he intended to hitchhike instead of driving as Morton did but has to rethink this after getting no rides whatsoever.
He cadges a car off an old friend and sets off after Morton anew. But it’s quickly apparent to Bennett that Morton’s England has been replaced by Tesco’s England. Where Morton is met by a howling wind at Combe Gibbet (two lovers were hanged there for the murder of the woman’s children), Bennett finds graffiti. Morton’s old-fashioned flirting contrasts with Bennett’s night of casual sex. Bennett’s tour doesn’t end, like Morton’s, in some quaint village but in Norwich Cathedral, where they are filming an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Bennett decries Morton’s “jaunty insincerity” and points out there was a general strike the year Morton did his trip. Morton, he argues, was giving his audience the England they wanted to be given. But Bennett, in striving not to be jaunty, comes across as jaundiced; his is a much more bleary view of England.
It’s not the contrived travel that bothers me – Dea Birkett used the ruse of research about stamps to inveigle her way onto Pitcairn Island and wrote Serpent in Paradise; Redmond O’Hanlon charmed his way onto a North Sea commercial fishing boat for no other reason than to write Trawler. Rather I think it’s the unchanging cadence in Bennett’s book – vignette after vignette which ends with a witty or wry comment. For his columns, this works fine; after all, there’s a week’s respite for the reader. In a book, it becomes rather unremitting.
Ditto Bennett’s adjectives. He can turn a lovely phrase. “Rain,” he writes, “is England’s international signature note.” But it can be overdone. In one paragraph, we get “creamy-green heads of cow parsley”, a hill “bathed in a sunshine like weak Lucozade”; golf course fairways “hummocked like a box of eggs”; the whole valley “shaped like a bath” and a church tower, sited “where the plughole would be”, looking like “a bad illustration from a children’s book of gnomes”. By the end of the book, I would have gladly ripped out many of Bennett’s adjectives and definitely the hyphenated ones.
It’s probably unlucky for Nathan Hoturoa Gray’s First Pass Under Heaven that I was already somewhat jaded when I started it. Here too was a story with potential. Five rather unlikely companions set off to walk the Great Wall of China. They aren’t very prepared – some don’t even have the right sleeping gear for the often freezing nights – and they all seem to have been after very different things from the walk. Perhaps not surprisingly, the group doesn’t stay together long. The unfit monk from Malaysia, Sumana Siri, splits first, opting for a mix of wheels and legs. Then Gray and Italian Paolo Antonelli split from Argentinian photojournalist Diego Azubel and the other New Zealander, Kelvin Jones. It’s not entirely clear why they would want to be so scattered in such a harsh environment but clearly they aren’t a team.
Gray admits as much. But he himself is incredibly brave – at one point he has to walk along a line of limestone rocks a footstep wide, with a 2000-foot drop on either side: “I set my mind to the task and launch my legs upon each thin, white brick as if I have become a spirit. I don’t even bother looking back, and continue alone in my wilderness.” He sees a local man, an evening’s drinking companion, murdered. He’s hassled by the police. Perhaps these harrowing events mean I should forgive Gray his mysticism; but I’m not mystical, and this aspect jars. He ponders whether the Wall is actually the world’s longest ley-line, as he’s never tired while walking on the Wall but feels drained when stepping off. I’m afraid I sighed with exasperation when Gray wrote of “an unseen presence” leaping into his body.
By the time I got to You Must Die Once I was, I admit, decidedly bilious about travel writing published in New Zealand. I possess not one skerrick of religious belief, so reading a book written about a pilgrimage to Mt Kailas, one of the holiest places for Tibetan Buddhists, would not usually be on my bedside book pile. Now to be fair, some travel books can include a religious transformation. Sara Wheeler, in one of my all-time favourite travel books, Terra Incognita, finds her Antarctica travel leads her to give up alcohol and reaffirm her faith. However, most of Wheeler’s book is about Antarctica, her transformation a small but potent part of the story. Introspection coupled with travel can, of course, work – Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica is memoir and travel and it is fabulous.
At times Robinson includes some interesting aspects of Buddhism – his explanation of the mandala for instance – but in general the Buddhism was too much for this secular reader. And this is despite the fact that Robinson also has a really gripping and harrowing tale to tell. (He travelled on horseback to take his Buddhist teacher’s ashes to Mt Kailas, was arrested and deported first time round, but returned and made it successfully.) The problem is Robinson’s writing which is, frankly, pedestrian. His editors really should have helped him lift his yarn from a series of diary entries into something readable. Here are the opening lines of the paragraphs on a random page:
It had been three months since ….
I reached the lake again ….
I stopped for tea ….
That night I camped on the river plain ….
I made tea in the morning ….
It was all too much for me. Midway through the book I skipped to the end to find out if he’d made it to Mt Kailas on his second attempt, then gave up.
But I don’t want to grump only at the writers. It’s the book publishing process too, I think, that needs a serve here. In my very limited experience, there’s not enough time in the whole procedure for polishing the writing, and that is the problem with all of these books. They could all have done with longer in the oven.
Mustn’t Grumble, the best written of the trio, would benefit from more passages where Bennett wasn’t tying it all up neatly. And he could flourish his adjectives a little less. His book had the most typos of the three. I’d strip the distracting poetry from First Pass Under Heaven, add more of the interesting history of China that Gray occasionally provides, and get rid of leaping presences. I’d have been much more frugal with the religious references in You Must Die Once which sit uneasily alongside the exciting parts of Robinson’s travel story. I found myself thinking that I’d strayed into that corner of the shop that sold the incense, not the travel writing books.
Having thought about great travel books, and what made them work, I can’t offer any formula. But hauling a few of the ones I’ve loved off my bookcase, I know they made the journey through their pages interesting, exciting, pleasurable, mixing the personal and the place in just the right quantities. They have also had the lengthy and complete attention of an editing team. These New Zealand travel books haven’t quite made that journey.
Kim Griggs is a Wellington freelance journalist.