Eric Newby is one of the established English travel writers, making his mark with classics like A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Self-deprecating and light-hearted, he now shows himself to be exceptionally well read as he puts together a collection of travel stories from all over the world, throughout the ages that travellers have bothered to put pen to paper.
He starts off with a section on travel advice and we learn from the verbose Dr Johnson that:
‘All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own, and if fortune leads him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.’
But it gets better as we learn on the next page from Prince Hermann Puckler-Muskau:
‘Had I to give a few universal rules to the young traveler, I should seriously counsel him thus – in Naples, treat the people brutally; in Rome, be natural; in Austria don’t talk about politics; in France, give yourself no airs; in Germany, a great many; and in England, don’t spit.’
We soon after learn from Sir Francis Galton how to spend a night in the cold like poachers, wrapped up in heather and how Napoleon’s soldiers saved their lives in the retreat from Russia by sleeping inside the warm carcass of a dead horse. Not exactly something you’d read about in most modern guide books.
From then on we journey with conquistadores and missionaries, who rejoice in God’s generosity in giving them fever and warts, and we also accompany classic travellers like Marco Polo, Wilfred Thesiger and Mark Twain. The latter never short of a wry remark, he mentions his astonishment at meeting the Czar and discovering that he was of flesh and blood. Just imagine! A man who could move multitudes of men with a wave of the hand.
‘Here was a man who could do this wonderful thing and yet if I chose I could knock him down. If I could have stolen his coat I would have done it. When I meet a man like that I want something to remember him by.’
If nothing else the travel tales remind us that human nature has always been much the same. When good old Prince Hermann Puckler-Muskau passes through England he pays a shilling to see a living skeleton who turns out to be rather plump. He was thin, the manager explains, but since arriving in England he’s been eating too much beef steak…
Likewise when Sybille Bedford checks into the ‘newest’ hotel in Mexico, she soon discovers that it’s so new that not only is there no running water – next year, the manager promises, you will recommend us? – but that the hotel is so new that there are no stairs…
Modesty aside, Eric Newby isn’t above including himself in the anthology with a passage from A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush where after surviving weeks of hard core mountaineering, they descend and bump into Wilfred Thesiger, vacationing in the mountains. He tells them how England is going to pot because a shirt he bought three years ago is starting to split. He also informs them that he carries out medical attention on his camp followers by himself, including amputations of infected fingers.
‘Do you do it? Cutting off fingers?’
‘Hundreds of them,’ he said dreamily, for it was very late. ‘Lord, yes. Why the other day I took out an eye. I enjoyed that. Let’s turn in.’ He said.
The ground was like iron with hard rocks sticking up from it. We started to blow up our air beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies.’ Thesiger said.’
Eric Newby’s Traveler’s Tales is a great read to dip into and remember that travel is something that has been going on all over the world from the time that humans stood up on their hind legs. There are travel stories here that the average reader would never find on their own and, whilst there’s a good share of pretty dull accounts, it’s overall a pretty enlightening experience.
At the very least you’re bound to find some authors in A Book of Traveler’s Tales whose books you can search for on the internet and expand your travel library.