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December 07, 2008

Don't Run, Whatever You Do by Peter Allison

Title:
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

The Okavango Delta, Botswana: africa's last great pristine wetland; final sanctuary of the persecuted African Wild Dog; dry-season saviour of one of the last surviving free-ranging elephant populations (over 80,000 of them).

And africa's most expensive tourist destination.

Low-volume, high cost is the rule, interpreted as luxury camping and champagne bush picnics by the handfull of safari companies good enough to win a concession from the local people. It's not a national park. The Delta remains largley in the hands of the local communities, some of whom still live there, and many of whom work in the scattering of camps that dot the wetlands from the pan-handle in the north, through the Moremi Tongue, Dead Tree Island and Chief's Island, and down towards Maun. Amongst them are some of the best safari guides in Africa. People who have lived the entire lives in the Delta. They have an impressive knowledge of nature. Most speak several languages, African and European.

For an outsider to succeed in that game is quite impressive. For one even to survive, where unlike in other countries safaris are commonly on foot and un-armed, is slightly miraculous. And to do so with great humour and friendliness - brilliant.

Peter Allison did just that, eventually becoming manager of a luxury camp. His account of those years gives a fascinating insight into the business, its difficulties and many, many strange events. I've heard anecdotes along these lines before, sit at the bar at Nata Lodge for any length of time and you'll find them hard to escape. But Peter goes well beyond that, with humour and with a great understanding of ecology and tourism. Ultimately, this behind the scenes look might leave you feeling a little bit bemused by the safari business and its customers. The Okavango certainly is a unique place populated by some rather unusual animals. I've never quite felt comfortable there myself - far too fancy!

Here's a few photos that give an idea of what it's like...

Press the play button on the bottom right of the slide show.


November 29, 2008

Into the Past – the memoirs of Phillip Tobias

Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

The memoirs of Professor Phillip Tobias are inevitably fascinating. He has excelled in so many fields. Being a great palaeoanthropologist in itself required expertise in many convergent fields: anatomy, evolutionary biology, anthropology and more. Being a great palaeoanthropologist in apartheid South Africa demanded much more: working upon the science of human origins and speciation in Africa while remaining untainted by the National Party's demand for legitimising (corrupt) science. And at the same time, helping to establish a new discipline, an international network of researchers, a new way of thinking about humans and humanity. It all makes for a globally important record.

And yet there's much more to this story: a personal story of commitment to people, regardless of race and culture. As a senior member of Wits, Tobias resisted the evil creep of Apartheid. And once it had become institutionalised, he helped to find loopholes and excuses to keep Wits as open to all as possible -  and most importantly, to resist the use of science for the purpose of racist propaganda.

There's much more to this story that I can recount here: the history of Judaism in South Africa, the workings of a medical school, research projects and a University, discussions of pedagogy and the history of higher education. And there are many more interesting and important characters, including Raymond Dart, Louis and Mary Leakey.

But above all, it's an enjoyable read.

Primitive humans

Primitive Homo sapiens meeting Australopithecus africanus, Botswana National Museum, Gaborone.



January 06, 2008

Zoo Quest for a Dragon by David Attenborough – review

Title:
Zoo Quest for a Dragon
Author:
Sir David Attenborough
ISBN:
0718810465
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
Three reasons to read this book: 1. it is a great adventure, written well and full of interesting people, places and animals; 2. it documents formative moments in natural history television, providing a fascinating insight into the character of Attenborough and his work; 3. the Indonesia of 1956 (including Bali, Komodo, and Papua New Guinea) was an extraordinary world, now sadly much disappeared.

Think of David Attenborough as we know him today: the calm and expert voice; a tall, up-right stance, firmly at home in any environment, in any climate; god-like access to spectacular visions of all of the world’s wildife, no matter how rare or remote. Now strip away half a century and almost all supporting technologies. What remains? A primitive movie camera, a mission to collect interesting species for the London Zoo, his friend the pioneering cameraman Charles Lagus; and an as yet un-proven theory that watchable TV could be produced in this way.

Lost at sea, with only a sketch map to guide them, and razor-sharp coral below…

The ship rocked and staggered so violently that it was all we could do to keep on our feet on the wildly tilting deck. As we desperately thrust our poles on to the reef, the racing water almost tore them from our grasp. We fought with all our strength until at last, driven by the gale, our tiny ship struggled out of the grip of the whirlpool and into deeper water…To retreat was impossible for the wind was blowing directly behind us and to go back we should have had to take the suicidal course of furling our sails and abandoning ourselves to the tidal race. We were irrevocably committed to going on. Within seconds, the ship reared and plunged as the next eddy sucked at her bows.

Some simple advice, in case you ever should need to sail across to the island of Komodo:

  • hire a sea-worthy boat;
  • make sure that the captain and crew know how to sail it;
  • ensure that the captain knows the way to Komodo, or at the very least, can read a map;
  • a shared language might help to avoid some of the more disastrous misunderstandings.

There simply were no professionals in 1956. Risks just had to be taken.

Zoo Quest for a Dragon is the story of two young adventurers making it up as they went along. It is the best type of adventure story, written with honesty and humour, and accounting for all of the mistakes as well as the remarkable successes. Attenborough’s attempts at speaking pidgin, often remarkably accurate but sometimes amusingly erroneous, capture the spirit of the expedition. Most people will have seen at least some small elements of the footage that they created whilst in Indonesia. Dragons and orang-utans. Some of the most memorable images from the history of wildlife broadcasting. My copy, a Companion Book Club special from 1959, contains photos, maps and an additional gem: Quest for the Paradise Birds, describing their march across Papua New Guinea. Travelling with large groups of porters in the style of the great Victorian explorers, they encountered not only the amazing dance of the birds of paradise, but also the soon to disappear rituals of the tribes, including pygmies and cannibals (one photo depicts a particularly gruesome necklace made of human fingers).

Many fascinating strands are brought together in this book, in a way that would be unlikely in modern natural history television. Most importantly, it presents the people of Indonesia as part of the environment (although tensions between the two are highlighted). And therein is the real surprise. In describing the many rituals and celebrations of the people encountered, Attenborough proves to be as great an observer of people as he is of animals.

Then, as evening fell, the mood changed again. The music of the gamelan became fierce and full of foreboding, and down the steps from the temple rushed the barong, one of the most powerful and terrible of the spirits of Bali. He was a huge four-legged monster. His body was covered with white shaggy hair hung with gilded leather trappings on which were sewn innumerable flashing mirrors. He had a long golden tail which arched far behind him, decorated with sacred cloths and a tinkling bell. His head was a huge bulbous-eyed mask with savage overlapping tusks and beneath his jaws hung the most magical attribute, a long beard of human hair.

The BBC may soon be making some of the Zoo Quest television programmes available through its online archives project. It will be interesting to see if the Attenborough of this book is all that different to the Attenborough in front of the screen. For now, a short clip is online (Real Player): http://www.turnipnet.com/tv/zooquest.rm


December 12, 2007

The Gypsy in Me by Ted Simon – review

Walking is simple, surely? We all have feet. 1500 miles across Europe? Hard, but not unimaginable. But this isn’t ordinary walking. This is no ordinary walker. Ted’s journey re-discovers a different mode of walking, of travelling. A gypsy kind of journey; travelling against the grain of thousands of years of European history. But perhaps a mode of walking, of being, that offers a radical answer to the violence and pain of European history?

In his book The Medieval Traveller, the historian Norbert Ohler estimated that a person travelling by foot, as most did at the time, could expect to cover between 15 and 25 miles a day. A surprising multitude and variety of people were on the road in this manner; whenever war, pestilence and the climate of the time allowed. There were well established routes, often leading to popular places of pilgrimage. For example the Pilgrim’s Way through Kent to Canterbury, along which I once managed to hobble a few muddy miles. There were also more adventurous types out on the road, cutting across these paths, or even escaping altogether, beyond Europe and Christendom. How far we have come since then? A few years ago in Silicon Valley I rashly decided to walk between a train station and a nearby business centre. Walk! For a start no one could give me directions that would be viable for a pedestrian. As I tramped off in the direction that I had assumed to be right, the inevitable road crossings were met with everything from disbelief to aggression. I wonder how many thousands of cars passed me in that hour? One could easily believe that the total number of miles travelled by pilgrims during the entire middle ages would easily be surpassed by the total number of miles travelled by motorised vehicles along the roads of a major city in a single early 21st Century day.

The act of walking is not, in the contemporary mind, in itself heretical. It is the purpose of the walk that matters. Walking for therapeutic or spiritual reasons is considered noble. Walking simply for leisure, given that leisure time now is the sacred, is similarly exulted. But walking out of necessity? Walking as a mode of transport or labour? Walking as a way of life? Walking through urban and post-industrial landscapes, far off the leisure guide’s map – tramping? How offensive does that word sound to us? ‘Tramp’: in reality one of the many terms for the itinerant travellers who walk out of necessity. ‘Gypsy’ is another such word. This prejudice no doubt extends to other lesser forms of transport. In Ireland there is a small but entirely respectable travel industry based upon tourists travelling by horse drawn ‘gypsy’ caravan. And yet who are the most despised, the most abused of Europe’s minorities? – those for whom that is a way of life. The title of the book under consideration, The Gypsy in Me, might at first seem a little odd. It could be read as the story of a diasporic jew’s return. There is indeed an element of that. But the book isn’t The Jew in Me. Ted has a keen and sometimes comic interest in pigs and (organic) pork products; assuring there’s no devotion to orthodoxy or racial purity here. It is an encounter with gypsies, in Romania towards the end of the book, that retroactively adds sense to the fragmented events and sensations of the journey: it is a gypsy journey; the un-constrained, joyous, irreverent, landless, journey of a gypsy; a very different kind of walk, a very Other kind of walk. A journey as old as Europe, and as old as the European paranoia that has repeatedly driven the continent to extremes of persecution and violence.

The Gypsy in Me is travel writing with a radical undercurrent. It contains many propositions that challenge our dangerously cosy Euro dream. It is the story of a man walking, tramping even, across a large part of the continent; not only the picturesque and fertile lands of the Euro dream, but also post-Communist urban and agro-industrial wastes, which seem more determining of the journey’s character. Ted Simon is perhaps more a migrant who writes than a conventional travel writer (although he is brilliantly skilled as the latter). And so travelling is for Ted serious work; sometimes fun, sometimes grim, but always engaged with fully. But there lies the tension in his writing, in his travelling. Successful travel writing is necessarily eventful. That’s its work, that’s what he has to offer to us the readers and to them the subjects of the story amongst whom he travels. He presence makes things happen. But at the same time he must travel lightly, with low social impact, never seeming to be a threat. Finding ‘work’ to do, but not ever threatening the local order. Eventful and ordinary. Magical but familiar. Is such a gypsy journey possible in Europe today?

The journey begins with Ted and two companions. It quickly transforms into a solo effort – as Ted the migrant/writer comes to the fore. It’s never an easy journey, but is throughout reported with good humour. Fun is even poked at some dangerously sore feet (definitely not a leisure walker). It certainly is not a comfortable journey. Which is good. The reality is that Europe is an uncomfortable place for anyone who must walk out of necessity. Europe does not like ‘tramps’, and perhaps never has. The fabric from which it is woven is incompatible with the tramp. It has been that way for a very long time. Think back to those medieval travellers. As Ohler establishes, travelling was even then already part of a highly regulated business. Travelling, by foot, horse or boat, was very much necessary. But already that necessity was qualified by noble motives: for the spirit and for the church. A whole network of hospitality extended to ease the pilgrim on their way. Did this network extend to travellers with other motivations? Surely its purpose was abused by merchants and opportunists (Chaucer gives good account of them). But those who travel out of necessity have always been seen as suspicious. My informed guess is that there is a binary valuation at work in European history, culture, geography, deeply embedded in the European mind: the tramp and the pilgrim, or more recently, the migrant and the tourist. Furthermore, it is a continuum. The identity of the pilgrim slides into that of the tourist, then into that of the merchant, and then, inspiring the kind of fear that drives pogroms, into the ‘racial infiltrator’. This ambiguity, its paradoxes and confusions, are at the base of our confused European sense of self, and I believe, are there in Ted’s book as the problem worked over by the journey. Like most if not all of us Europeans, he is a potentially uncomfortable mixture: Jewish, English, German, Romanian…pilgrim, gypsy, immigrant, migrant, tourist, travel writer.

But then much of Europe is also populated by people who never travel. People who’s people have never travelled – or so they assume. On his journey, Ted finds many of these. In Kaliningrad, it is as if the rotting Russian occupying force, and its commander (Ted befriends his family), had always been there. Almost all traces of the former German town of Konigsberg have been erased and replaced by a new Slavic [dis]order. European history is of course a bloody mess of invasion and occupation. Perhaps it enriches the soil. Nonetheless, the foundation of communities and lineages by fresh migrants must be elided. Conventional wisdom declares this to be the only precaution against a relentless cycle of revenge. Communism regulates and limits travel through stifling state controls. Capitalism regulates travel through an assemblage of values, desires, narratives, and circuits: the travel industry. Even when migration does occur, it is perceived more as a form of eternal holiday (the villa in Spain). In both cases, the required effect is to make the sedentary population feel secure. They may have thousands of people moving through their land, but it’s OK, they are just tourists. The real colonisation is well hidden by the perpetual peace of the happy holidaymaker.

But if a community forgets how to travel, how can it adapt to change? How can an up-rooted farmer move on, ripped from the soil of his cultural and agricultural roots? The elision of travel, of the experience of migration, adds to the pain. Perhaps there is another way? A way of travelling in space and time that avoids conflict and pain?

Ted embraces the fact that travel, of the most primitive and unregulated kind, walking, is a political response to the cycle of revenge, to the ebb and flow of territorialization and deterritorialization. It is the absolute opposite of the blitzkrieg. A person walking can be observed slowly approaching, and thus assimilated physically and mentally by the observer. A car, motorcycle or Panzer, on the other hand, arrives far too quickly. Furthermore, one may see the walker’s face immediately. Individuals on foot tend to seep into consciousness. Could they represent a less threatening means for encountering the political or psychological Other? The book is punctuated by an idea, a very significant notion that seems, even to Ted himself, to be rather eccentric. But given these thoughts on the nature of walking, and the history of walking in Europe, it might not be that mad after all. There’s a dark shadow falling across the whole of the journey, cast from a land to the south: Serbia and Kosova. The atrocities were very much public. As public as the failure of NATO and the UN, with all their vehicles, to stop the killings. Is the idea now obvious? Perhaps the conflict could be seen as a continuum of the tensions between territory and migration, land and travel, repeated throughout European history? In which case the best response might be to subvert the very grounding of that conflict. The proposition was thus: a people’s walk, not a march, an unthreatening gypsy-like joyous drift of thousands of ordinary people, into the war zone.

November 30, 2007

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell – review

Book front cover
Title:
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus
Author:
Lawrence Durrell
ISBN:
0571201555
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
A beautiful and peaceful island lyrically described by a great travel writer. The influence of an ancient civilization unveiled. Character-rich islanders. Poets, intellectuals. And then chaos and violence. I argue that Durrell’s book is a major contribution to our understanding of nationalism, European and global politics, and the stupidy of the British colonial power.

What is travel writing? Consider a book in which the narrative and characters pivot around a single tree, rooted to the centre of a lonely cliff-top village on an island almost forgotten to the world. The tree is more than a totem or a metaphor: rather it is a geocosmic force around which the entire Earth rotates. Younger villagers feel it’s centrifugal effects, spinning them out to sea to be caught up in strong currents and carried off to other lands. The old have learnt to get close to the centre of the force, where all is stillness, willingly embracing the inertia beneath its shady branches. The most successful in the art of doing very little have enjoyed its peace for so long that their olive-coloured wrinkled skins are indistinguishable from its roots and its branches. It is then the ‘Tree of Idleness’ around which the book pivots.

And what of the book’s author? He’s pretty adept at this kind of life – island life. He has a reputation as an island poet. Corfu was his family home, along with other animals. Cyprus seems to be a familiar habitat. But his great achievement is this: he gets close enough to the pull of the Tree of Idleness so as to know it like a native, he speaks it’s Greek, he adopts its Byzantine mannerisms and customs; and yet he can pull away when necessary, both physically (making small but intense journeys around the island) and intellectually (seeing the tides of history, politics and empire washing around its mangrove roots). And that then qualifies this not only as travel writing, but genuinely great travel writing – which is never measured in terms of miles traveled on the map. Travel writing as an intensive journey through differences, in time.

What mode of transport is used? If this is travel writing, there must be a vehicle. In fact there are many, small and large, all bobbing around the shallows of the Eastern Mediterranean with varying degrees of shipwrecked helplessness. 571 miles from Athens. 470 miles from Istanbul. 151 miles from Beirut. But amongst this loosely assembled convoy of fates and desires, the principle traveller is the island of Cyprus itself. In the three years covered by the narrative, Cyprus travels a remarkable route. It had already circulated, or been passed back and forth between great powers, East and West, many times. In 2800BC Aphrodite was worshipped. In 550BC it almost floated down the Nile like a papyrus barge. 285BC took it off to Macedon. The birth of Christ was a pull towards Palestine, or rather the beginnings of its conversion into the crusader army’s battle cruiser, sitting menacingly off the Levantine coast. With the great schizm it raised the flag (and murals) of Byzantium not Rome, only to be captured by the Ottomans in 1571. But surely none of that compares to the glory of her Majesty’s Royal Navy? It served her with great devotion, love even, from 1878. And then in 1955, half way through the book, the mutiny began.

The author quickly realised that the historical key to unlocking the culture of Cyprus, as it was before the all-perverting influence of nationalism, was not that of the Ancient Greeks, or even that of Ottoman Islam. Rather, it was a kind of Byzantium. There’s a suggestion that the relative peace within which Greek and Turkish inhabitants cohabited belonged to that of a more ancient civilization, with patterns of daily life more compatible with the landscape and the climate. Each colonizing wave had been assimilated to the island, never conquering it beyond the surface. There were of course differences still, national characteristics, described with a delicious style. A Turkish businessman moves like honey off a spoon – imperceptibly, effortlessly, but still nevertheless purposefully. Durrell’s prose is often, very often, brilliant – way beyond any other travel writer that I know. It is a style that emphasises character without resorting to stereotype, with both efficiency and visual extravagance. Being also an accomplished poet he has techniques and literary tools that other writers never even know of. Principle amongst them is the depth of his knowledge of plants, animals and geography, and the way in which they provide texture and life to the text – rocks, flowers, animals, landscapes, people (their characters observed like an array of species) all permeate his writing, giving its form and its dynamic; the importance of natural history to his prose adds irony to his occasional dig at his zoological brother Gerald (who appears in the book to yet again turn a Durrell house into a menagerie). And it is precisely the observational power afforded by those textual skills that led Durrell to grasp, so well, the forces and movements happening around him: an ancient and unique island ecology battered by storms and turbulent currents from elsewhere.

It would have been easy to write a very different, more stereotypical book. As he discovered when working as a school teacher in Nicosia, the young Greeks were already writing that book. And in that act of national story telling was seeded an invasive weed which would eventually strangle the Tree of Idleness: the Cyprus tragedy. That other story was written under the drugged influence of Lord Byron, hero of Greek nationalism. Durrell tells of young students in his class reciting (badly) tales of Byron, with tears in their eyes. Byron the liberator, Byron the unifier. Throughout Durrell’s story, a paradoxical attitude amongst the Greek Cypriots is observed: they love and respect their British masters, and at the same time they want them off the island. Britain, personified by Byron (who helped to raise a navy to depose the Ottomans), signifies freedom, national unity, racial integrity, and most of all modernity. Greek nationalism, craving ‘enosis’ (unity), was jealous of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. No longer wanting to be treated as children of the Empire, ready to stand alone. In return, the colonial masters behaved with the usual incompetence and misunderstanding, imagining the Cypriots to be an eternally childish people, perhaps even noble island savages. Anthony Eden had more global and devious intentions (Cyprus being not far from Suez, Palestine, Syria), and in secret tensions between Turkey and Greece were being deliberately inflamed. But the colonial administration made a more basic error. Cyprus was part of a Europe that had changed, matured even. But the administration simply could not see that truth. It was no longer an island of farmers, but rather a homeland to a highly mobile international workforce, dispersed across Europe and America. The island that they thought they were governing, the island of the Tree of Idleness, was disappearing fast. And as Durrell smartly observes, by simply ignoring the issue for so long, an extremist result only became more likely – after all, there’s plenty of time to sit around under the tree, or in the café, continually exaggerating the nationalist story; the Cypriots being great story tellers.

Bitter Lemons is a most extraordinary book. As the work of a lyrical travel writer, we first see beauty. And then horror, as the revolt starts to grow. By 1956, when Durrell finally abandoned the island, murder and destruction was everywhere. A true tragedy. But one documented incrementally by a master of lyrical difference, of the slow and imperceptible transformation of things. As a record of normality slipping uncontrollably into chaos, and the failure of politics and administration to even perceive its fate, it is a vital story, a text book even, the crisis being in many ways a precursor to Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, Palestine. Sadly it seems that it’s lesson has been largely ignored by the politicians who might just have made a difference to those terrible developments. Being optimistic, one could imagine that an ‘enosis’ is now inevitable. Not union with Greece, but rather the union of the whole of Cyprus with the new Europe, the early undercurrent of whose formation was in reality the force that stirred the crisis of ’55. But undoubtedly the politicians will still rabble-rouse and play off minorities so as to get their snouts closer to the trough.

November 20, 2007

One Man Caravan by Robert Edison Fulton Jr. – review

Book front cover
Title:
One Man Caravan (Incredible Journeys Books)
Author:
Robert Fulton
ISBN:
1884313051
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
Robert Edison Fulton Jnr. made what might have been the first circumnavigation of the globe by motorcycle. This book gives an account of that journey’s many adventures. More importantly, it established motorcycling as a form of long distance travel that more easily connects the traveller to their surroundings and the people of the traversed lands.

To mankind’s age old comment on the journey of life that “the first hundred years are the hardest,” the traveler on a motorcycle could add that the first thousand miles are equally tough. p.12

And what of those first thousands miles, down the Dover road and across a depressed Europe, June 1932? Tedium and the uncomfortable wearing together of metal, rubber, muscle and bones that motorcycle manufacturers term “the running-in period”. Robert Edison Fulton Jnr. was perhaps the first of many to take the hard way round: eastwards across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the USA. Ted Simon recommended this book to me. Bernd Tesch provides the foreward to this recent edition. They both know what it’s like to sit high over a rumbling air-cooled boxer engine for immense distances. Ted and Bernd ride BMW GSs, like mine. As travelers and writers, we are all descended from Bob Fulton, just as the DNA of his boxer engined Douglas bike is present even today in the latest high powered BMW bikes (some authorities claim that BMW copied the Douglas engine for its early bikes, mounting it transversally rather than longitudinally).

Every long journey by motorcycle has its “running-in period”, whether aboard a new machine or revisiting an old companion. But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond that first 1000, there is a slow oscillation around the point at which all runs smoothly. On a bike their is a much tighter and much more critical feedback loop between the environment, the mind and body of the rider, and the machine; all in fine balance, or working their way out of equilibrium:

As the day wore on the sound became more alarming. When I started that morning, the steady drone of the exhaust had been deep and chesty. But now, after half-a-dozen hours of desert driving, it seemed to fill with static, the machine began to wobble, the tires seemed flat, the whole engine seemed on the verge of falling apart, collapsing.

It wasn’t the machine, it was nerves; strung tight, pulled tighter by the constant thought of “what would happen if something happened?” p.65

Ride a motorcycle if you want to know and master paranoia; get a grip upon the awful power of the human mind to envisage even unlikely disasters, and to be pulled head first towards them. Psychologists now call this “target fixation”. If you look at the kerb you will hit it. That’s lesson 1 on day 1 of any riding course.

Bob Fulton’s journey is about transforming that negative target fixation into something positive: how to fall into the right kind of trouble; how to make something out of almost nothing, even amongst the emptiness and desolation of receding empires and expanding deserts. It is quite an amazing story. In many ways such a journey was easier then. America hadn’t given its people an often undeserved bad name. Imperial outposts provided staging points and frontiers linking every hiding place. Even beyond the beat of the colonial bobbies, their influence reached far: his ride into tribal Afghanistan would make a modern traveller deeply jealous. Then it was treacherous, coming at the tale-end of a serious disruption of the internal balance of terrors. Islamic hospitality was his saviour, along with enlightened rulers and friendly peasants. Now, especially for an American, it would be impossible. One is reminded of Chevy Chase hanging upside down from a wooden post: “hi, we’re Americans” – big mistake, one of many.

And after the Middle East and Central Asia, on to “French” Indo-China as it was then, before the first great US foreign policy disaster extinguished that world of relative innocence. He had assumed the service station owner at Angkor, Cambodia, was trying to rip him off. In fact it was the other way round: he was trying to give money to the brave motorcyclist! Bob Fulton realised, as many others have since, that the world is on the whole friendly and helpful, on a personal level. It’s on a more international global level that nightmares erupt. Japan for example, which in 1933 was deeply in love with all things American. If the Kobe Motorcycle Club had achieved the political power that they so clearly deserved, WWII might have been settled on the race track, aboard Indians and Harleys. And Bob Fulton might have been there cheering his new friends on. At a personal level, amongst the small band of Japanese riders with whom he crossed the islands, there could only ever be great respect.

One Man Caravan: a great adventure. Well written, with a scattering of fascinating pictures and maps. Honest. Full of excitement and exoticism, but with many connections between that world (now disappeared) and the present day.

May 02, 2007

Dreaming of Jupiter by Ted Simon

Writing about web page http://www.jupitalia.com

Book front cover
Title:
Dreaming Of Jupiter
Author:
Ted Simon
ISBN:
0316732273
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
Ted’s new book is out. I rode down to Dorset to meet him and get a copy. It is really good. Worth reading even if you haven’t read Jupiter’s Travels yet (surely everyone has read that travel writing classic).

59,000 miles on a motorcycle is, in experiental terms, quite a journey. It is many times greater than that same distance travelled by car. And by air? – there is no comparison possible. There is always something special about travelling by motorcycle. Ted Simon has developed conclusive arguments on the subject: being exposed to the elements and the terrain, covering large distances with ease, experiencing sudden contrasts and juxtapositions, meeting people on their own more human terms, the constant physical and mental difficulty that intensifies experience, the ability to just stop anywhere at anytime, changing direction or just letting unplanned things happen, and quite often the humility of being a small individual on a big road. Speed and agility should of course also be mentioned. And danger? Yes, as Ted recently explained to me, that has to be part of it too. You’ll find all of these factors throughout Ted’s latest book, Dreaming of Jupiter. Both on the journey that it documents, and in the resulting book, they combine to make for an exciting and important read.

In 29 months, between January 2001 and June 2003, Ted piloted his bike, with varying degrees of skill and luck, on a journey of just that great intensive and extensive length. For a second time, he encircled the world and joined up countless distinct points and narratives just as he had in the ‘70s, resulting in the classic Jupiter’s Travels . On many occasions, chance and geopolitical forces conspired to pull him away from his planned route, which should have followed that of the 1973 journey. Afghanistan was out of the question, with consequences for Pakistan. The results are, however, still as interesting, and perhaps even more significant in providing us with a picture of how the world has changed in 30 years, and to where it might be heading. Perhaps the most important thread joining the two books together is that of migration, and the plight of the migrant. In 1973, I have claimed (and Ted says I’m on the right track) he was a migrant amongst migrants. Now he returns to the ever moving ever striving ever changing “unfinished world” (Ted’s great alternative description of the developing world). The intensity of it’s desires and frustrations is shocking. This book acts as a warning to the rich nations.

So there then are a few good reasons to read Dreaming of Jupiter. But there’s a lot more. Ted’s style, a master of the art of travel writing, sets these arguments within a thoroughly enjoyable context. There’s more humour than the first book. Characters and situations are drawn up rapidly, but without resorting to cliches and stereotypes. Add to that lots of action (including one of the most dangerous high altitude breakdown rescues ever), beautiful ladies, fun with the Allende’s, and a BMW R80GS, what more could you possibly ask for?


February 04, 2007

Why travel by motorcycle?

Follow-up to Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon – a really great book of travel or migration from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Because things like this happen…

Arriving at a hotel in Peru, no doubt looking somewhat worn out by a hard ride across South America, Ted Simon is pleased to be given a discount:

‘Por essos que llegen en coche, ochenta. Pero essos en moto son muy hombre,’ said the clerk with a grin. In other words, car drivers pay the full rate but there is a discount for heroes. p.288

Heroes deserve discounts!


January 16, 2007

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon – a really great book of travel or migration

Book front cover
Title:
Jupiter's Travels
Author:
Ted Simon
ISBN:
0140054103
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars
Ted Simon has a new book, Dreaming of Jupiter (published March 2007). It documents, with his usual wonderful style, his recent retracing of the original 1973 round the world ride made famous in Jupiter’s Travels. Find out more on Ted’s Jupitalia site. Meanwhile, I’m still working on a reading of his work from 1979 – a really great book on many levels. Here’s the reason why I think it should be studied seriously.

A very great book, many agree on that. But what kind of book is it? For a while I thought that I could take an interest in the travel writing genre, having enjoyed and learnt greatly from Jupiter’s Travels. I read a lot of travel books. Some are impressive in their own ways. But I remained disappointed. Then recently I read Ted Simon’s classic for a fourth time. Half way through Africa, the second of the journey’s six continents, my mistake became obvious. It’s not really a travel book at all. It is a book of migration, diaspora, escape.

You can, if you want, read Jupiter’s Travels as a great adventure story, which it certainly is. It’s a good, if not the best, motorcycle travel book. If that’s what you want, then just read it. But there’s more. Much more. This is my response to the first two chapters…

Conventional travel books are essentially long postcards dispatched to home. ‘Wish you were here’. Or in some cases, ‘bet you’re glad you’re not here’. Eventually, as we know right from the outset, the writer gets back to the home that was always there. But there is never really a homecoming, or even a home in Jupiter’s Travels (the sequel to Jupiter’s Travels was at one point published as Riding Home, but is now entitled Riding High). Yes, the world was encircled in Simon’s tightening noose. The two ends of the journey, start and finish, twisted around each other on the return to Coventry. The rope tightened…but around thin air. The world had slipped away and refused to be suffocated.

A life, the journey, continued, jumping back and forth across the surface of the world, California, India, France, Romania etc. It continues even now. Part Jewish, part German, part Romanian. Human shrapnel dispersed the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Culturally English, living in America, perhaps even a little bit Indian (spiritually). Part this and part that: Ted Simon – like half the people in the world, on the move, looking for opportunity and experience. A migrant amongst migrants.

Why does this matter? What difference? Travel writing has a recurrent fault: the writer/traveller never really lets go. The journey remains as an interlude within the career. The people and places that are documented never rise above the status of curiosities. The events, the interruptions, are mere diversions. Reality, coincidence, only distracts from the essence of places, or rather landmarks, represented as recollections, travellers tales, postcards, ideals and ideas. But the world is actually full of migrants and coincidences who, to the travel writer, may seem incidental, never true to a place. The vast majority of people in or from the developing world are migrants. Accident, the interconnections between the unstable and shallow surface of things, is the real. Real places, real experiences, which may seem permanent and eternal to the travel writer, are in fact transitory and temporary constructions of coincidence. History (human and natural) proves this, although the power of the travel industry transforms the mistaken apprehensions of the travel writer into self-fulfilling prophecies: places become more like the stories that are told about them. The importance of Ted’s book is that he actually becomes a migrant (or perhaps always was one), and is thus able to encounter the world and its people on their own terms. Being a migrant amongst migrants allows the writer to value people, places and events. I can’t think of single location in its 447 pages that could ever become a new tourist attraction. They are all far too real and minor. Many of them no longer exist, having been swallowed up by development, decay or dessertification. An epic book of an epic journey, never serving the imperialistic colonising travel industry. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari invented the term ‘minor literature’ to describe writing that comes from migrants and under-dogs. It may still be great literature. Kafka they say is minor literature. But it doesn’t come from the dominant major culture within which it swims. Jupiter’s Travels is part of a related genre: minor travel literature. This is how it’s done…

63,000 miles on that feeble little machine! Hacked together from the Meriden parts bin, amidst a near-death experience for the old Triumph company, and then the total collapse of Midlands industry. Only hours south from that miserable place the crankcase spewed its store of lubrication across the road. Failure in the 1970’s was just part of the plan, quality control to be undertaken by the customer out on the road. It was rebuilt and the journey stuttered into life again.

Half way across Lybia and the engine had already started to self-destruct. In those days a spare piston was just part of any long distance rider’s toolbox. The ability to strip and rebuild an engine somewhere out in the African bush? Taken for granted. And finally, just south of Louis Trichardt in SA (where by coincidence I once broke a gearbox) valves dropped, a sleeve corrugated, rings warped and the piston seized:

“The broken metal had penetrated everywhere and again I was struck by the force of the coincidence that all this havoc had been wrought virtually within sight of Johannesburg”. p.173

The end clearly being both nigh and divinely ordained, any normal person would have bailed out. But Ted Simon is no ordinary person. He still had another four continents to crash through (with increasing grace and understanding): interrogations by the Brazilian police, vast landscapes to carve out, portraits to draw of hundreds of people in detailed miniature, love and ideals, horrible accidents (when fishing not riding), India, and an encounter with destiny.

Apparently, a machine only works when it breaks down. Or as the journey demonstrated:

”...the interruptions were the journey.” p.132

And what a machine! A literary machine, an intellectual machine, a desiring and sometimes paranoiac machine. All wired into the bike, the journey and its improbable rhythms:

“The movement has a complex rhythm with many pulses beating…all this metal in motion, amazing that it can last for even a minute, yet it will have to function for thousands of hours [like a human heart]...Through all these pulses blending and beating I hear a slow and steady beat, moving up and down, three semi-tones apart, a second up, a second down…Is it the pulse of my own body intercepting the sound, modifying it with my bloodstream?” p.28-29

The rhythm is both dependable and on the edge of breakdown. Like consciousness itself. It acts as a single line through time and space against which the world is measured. Marking time both produces and absorbs intensity. And then looking outwards from this beat, time and its extension in space is conquered:

“From Tripoli to Sirte is three hundred miles, and I’m really flying with the engine singing for me and everything rapping along nicely. There’s a lot of rain, but I’m less nervous of the wet now, on tar at least. The land and sea lie flat out forever, and I can see the weather coming maybe fifty miles ahead. I have never seen so much weather. I can see where it begins and where it ends; I can see the blue sky above, and the approaching storms and then the good times beyond. Remarkable. Like having an overview of past and future. I am a world spinning through visible time.” p.53

And at the end of Africa:

“I have just ridden that motorcycle 12,245 miles from London…As I think about it I have a sudden and quite extraordinary flash, something I have never had before and am never able to recapture again. I see the whole of Africa in one single vision, as though illuminated by lightning.” p.183

He is of course that lightning flash, connecting thousands of disparate and ever moving points across the vastness of Africa. That interconnection of surfaces is then his essence, the essence of the migrant. He qoutes Gerard Manley Hopkins on the strangeness of being (he revived the medieval philosophy of Duns Scotus and its notion of coincidental but non-decomposable, un-dissolvable uniqueness and identity: essence through accident).

But how many people need to go through 63,000 miles of pain and pleasure to get a home, to clarify and solidify their own substance?

Why? What motivation? There was something demonic, possessing – not just the fire in the cylinder bores, although the bike is important in itself. Rather some circuit in Ted himself, circulating round and round iteratively, sometimes whirling like a tornado of doubt and fear sucking events into its core. At times the force is intense, a whirlwind ripping across the surface of the Earth. Is the journey there to satiate and extinguish that force entirely? Therapy? Or perhaps travel of this kind, and its writing, is a learning process: the question being how to tame and harness that power. How to live successfully as a migrant? Perhaps that could help us with our conflicts and confusions? In Tunisia the effects start to look dangerous. In Libya and Egypt, the raging Yom Kippur war perhaps distracts the police and the people from the effect. And then in Egypt it comes back even more fiercely:

“Could turbulence and change be ‘carried’ and transmitted like a disease? I knew I had brought excitement into those three lives, but the news from the front was always good. I wondered, unhappily, whether I was destined to leave a trail of grief and misery behind me too.” p.74

This is the fate of the migrant. But by the end of Africa, enough has been learned upon which to form a new way of being a mobile difference engine on the road. That is the art of the migrant. However for a while, when physical movement ceases, these lessons no longer make sense. The journey must be taken up once again. And then by California, the traveller and the reader are to a much greater extent able to stop the extensive spatial movement through space while still retaining an intensive movement on the spot, still governed by the habits of a well practised traveller. At this moment relations with other humans are able to deepen and stabilise, at least for a while. Ted finds love, but as the interconnection, intertwining of a set of mobile and tensile surfaces, soon to spring back into life: Australia and Asia.

Coming soon…

Dreaming of Jupiter


October 20, 2005

Book Review: small world networks and other amazing coincidences

Book front cover
Title:
Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks
Author:
Mark Buchanan
ISBN:
075381689X
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

A quick detour into the theory of small world networks (six-degrees of separation, friend-of-a-friend, etc) has just provided me with some ideas that I suspect will resurface in both my philosophy research and my e-learning work. It also gave me a remarkable coincidence of the kind described in the book itself.

After spending a few weeks away from my research project, I usually restart my thinking by quickly reading a popular-science/history/art-theory book of some kind. My means of choosing such a book is usually quite aleatoric: the criteria being "something that sounds good, is easy and fast to read, and which may provide some unforeseen empirical data for my conceptual activities".

Mark Buchanan's book, selected from the popular-science section of Waterstone's in an instant, without much consideration, met these criteria well. The aim of the book is to convey and contextualize what is a fairly simple idea. But what makes that simplicity into something more significant is that it is an idea that seems to have been overlooked, and which once brought into consideration, gives explanatory sense to lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena. For me as a philosopher, that is interesting: what thoughts were impossible before the arrival of this concept? what errors were made?

The concept is, superficially, that of the "small world network": that is to say, how networks seem to naturally form from highly chaotic and random situations, into simplified but still random organisations, connected together by specially priveliged nodes that do much of the work of maintaining order and flow in the system. As a result of this priveliged position, and the dynamics of its connectivity, all kinds of sophisticated behaviours (economic, social, cognitive, ecological) can be seen to emerge: results of what has been called the network effect (although there is much more to this than the business model). It plausibly demonstrates how it is quite feasible for one random person to be only six degrees of separation from another random person. And then it extends this model to many further domains (physical, ecological, computational etc).

I'm thinking: Kant, sensus communis – what if he new about small world networks? Or conversely: Nietzsche – what did he know? And of course it is there in Deleuze and Guattari (concepts such as transversality), but rarely with the very definite examples that we now know of. A fascinating question to consider would be: when exactly did the concept of "network" arise? – and at what point did people start realising that the conditions for the establishment and operation of a network may cause certain behaviours, patterns and organisations to emerge (the network effect)?

Connect it to Andy Clark's extended cognition theses (with its tightly coupled systems). And throw in our experiences with the small world system known as Warwick Blogs. Interesting. Very.

Even more so because it turned out that, as I discovered on page 16 as the author described the kind of surprising coincidence that a small-world network can cause, I am in fact only two degrees of separation from Mark Buchanan! He is a friend of a friend As I read…

I moved a few years ago from the United States to London to take up an editorial position with Nature

…I dropped the book when I realised that he may well share an office with my friend Karl, who is also an editor with Nature, also working in the physical sciences. Karl is a Moosehead, with whom I occassionaly drink, eat chillis, and bellow loudly. On Friday night (whilst in the Bilash in Botley) I explained this to Travis (also a Moosehead, if not the head Moosehead). Travis was actually planning, that night, to write an email to Mark Buchanan. It may even be that I have met the author at some Moosing event at some time (although I may have been drunk and therefore incapable of remembering the names of any new acquintance). Spooky. Or just the result of a small world network.

Buchanan's book does well to rapidly explain the work of Watts and Strogatz, Granovetter, and other pioneers. It is entertaining and full of fascinating examples throughout – especially when dealing with the ingenious experiments of the sociologist Stanley Milgram. The connecting-up of cases from such a wide range of domains begs many questions (important philosophical questions that I think Deleuze and Guattari address effectively in What is Philosophy?). But it is very much worthwhile because of that.

I'll give the book 4 stars (not 5, as it could do with a bit more detail on the mathematics and mechanics of the networks).

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