Wednesday, August 6, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Evelyn Waugh was not only one of the greatest English novelists of the 20th century, but also a fine travel writer who brought the same powers of observation and keen wit to bear during his excursions and expeditions as he employed in penning his masterpieces of fiction. Between 1929 and 1935, he wrote four travel books - Labels, Remote People, Ninety-two Days and Waugh in Abyssinia- and substantial selections from these were later collected in an anthology entitled When the Going Was Good, today’s “Shelves” feature.
The book covers journeys Waugh made to South America, Africa and the Middle East, with numerous interesting stops along the way. Take Naples, for example:
“As soon as I landed a small man in a straw hat ran to greet me, with evident cordiality. He had a brown, very cheerful face, and an engaging smile.
‘Hullo, yes, you sir. Good morning,’ he cried. ‘You wanta one nice woman.’
I said, no, not quite as early as that.
‘Well, then, you wanta see Pompeian dances. Glass house. All-a-girls naked. Vair artistic, vair smutty, vair French.’
I still said no, and he went on to suggest other diversions rarely associated with Sunday morning. In this way we walked the length of the quay as far as the cab rank at the harbour entrance. Here I took a small carriage. The pimp attempted to climb on to the box, but was roughly repulsed by the driver. I told him to drive me to the cathedral, but he took me instead to a house of evil character.
‘In there,’ said the driver, ‘Pompeian dances.’
‘No’, I said, ‘the cathedral.’
…I paid him and went into the cathedral. It was full of worshippers. One of them detached himself from his prayers and came over to where I was standing.
‘After the Mass. You wanta come see Pompeian dances?’
I shook my head in Protestant aloofness.
I looked away. He shrugged his shoulders, crossed himself, and relapsed into devotion…”
* * *
Some of Waugh’s finest reporting came from his two trips to Abyssinia (which later furnished him with much rich material for his novels, Scoop and Black Mischief). It is perhaps rare for people these days to stumble across potential journeys in such a haphazard fashion, but what a pity that it should be so:
“Six weeks before, I had barely heard Ras Tafari’s name. I was in Ireland, staying in a house where chinoiserie and Victorian gothic contend for mastery over a Georgian structure. We were in the library, discussing over the atlas a journey I proposed to make to China and Japan. We began talking of other journeys, and so of Abyssinia. One of the party was on leave from Cairo; he knew something of Abyssinian politics and the coming coronation. Further information was contributed from less reliable sources; that the Abyssinian Church had canonized Pontius Pilate, and consecrated their bishops by splitting their heads; that the real heir to the throne was hidden in the mountains, fettered with chains of solid gold; that the people lived on raw meat and mead; we looked up the royal family in the Almanach de Gotha and traced their descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; we found a history that began: ‘The first certain knowledge we have of Ethiopian history is when Cush ascended the throne immediately after the Deluge’; an obsolete encyclopaedia informed us that , ‘though nominally Christian, the Abyssinians are deplorably lax in their morals, polygamy and drunkenness being common even among the highest classes and in the monasteries.’ Everything I heard added to the glamour of this country. A fortnight later I was back in London and had booked my passage to Djibouti.”
* * *
At the coronation of the Emperor in Addis Ababa, Waugh is assisted in understanding the Coptic Mass by an “expert”:
“Professor W., who was an expert of high transatlantic reputation on Coptic ritual, occasionally remarked: ‘They are beginning the Mass now,’ ‘That was the offertory.’ ‘No, I was wrong; it was the consecration,’ ‘No, I was wrong; I think it is the secret Gospel,’ ‘No, I think it must be the Epistle,’ ‘How very curious; I don’t believe it was the Mass at all’…”
* * *
And in Aden, Waugh tells a rather charming tale of a local troop of Boy Scouts:
“One unifying influence among the diverse cultures of the Crater was the Aden troop of Boy Scouts. It is true that Arabs cannot be induced to serve in the same patrol with Jews, but it is a remarkable enough spectacle to see the two races sitting amicably on opposite sides of a camp-fire, singing their songs in turn and occasionally joining each other in chorus. The scoutmaster, an English commercial agent, invited me to attend one of these meetings…Later a Somali boy presented himself for examination in scout law. He knew it all by heart perfectly. ‘First scoot law a scoot’s honour iss to be trust second scoot law…’ et cetera, in one breath.
‘Very good, Abdul. Now tell me what does “thrifty” mean?’
‘Yes, what do you mean, when you say a scout is thrifty?’
‘I min a scoot hass no money.’”
* * *
The best travel writers skillfully manage to subordinate their own presence altogether, letting the landscapes and peoples of far away lands unroll before the reader in their own element, almost cinematically. And yet the subtle hand of the writer in its crafting of the prose, and in the selection and arrangement of incidents and conversations and locales, can nonetheless be detected, and, in Waugh’s case, truly savored for its genius.
I invite readers to note some of their own favorite travel books in the comments section.