Travelling in the past

I brought home quite a few old books from Jean’s with the intention of using them to make a bookcase.  Most of them belonged to her first husband who actually did travel for a year or so back in the 40s and evidently liked to read about it.  Some of the books actually looked interesting and so I read them.   Read all about them here…


No Other Cono other countryuntry     Al Purdy

Al Purdy was a well-known poet who loved his country. This book was published in 1977, so it provides a look at not only Canada of almost 40 years ago, but also Canada of his youth as he travelled around the country in the 30s.

And indeed he did travel. He left home as a teenager and started to hop trains, the main mode of transportation for men (usually) without money at the time. After all, it was the depression and I think of it akin to how in the 70s it was hippies (including yours truly) who followed the transportation trend of the time.

Purdy did all sorts of what we would call menial work, but it is the people he describes that is most interesting. Even when he could live on his writing, he, often with his wife, travelled by ship, train, plane, or car all across this huge country. For example, one year he spent some time in a small Newfoundland fishing village, describing the people (and the food– breaded cod tongues, mmm), especially the old grizzled guys. He recognized, as did they, that the life of a fisherman would probably die with them, as the young people were leaving. This was often a theme in even more populous areas. The grizzled guys talked about the old life, not necessarily with nostalgia, as they understood what a hard life it was.

At one point, Purdy talked about how, seeing a particularly beautiful place in British Columbia, he exclaimed to his wife that they should buy a place there. Down the road, he again exclaimed that they should buy a place there. But he understood that travelling to a place already gives you a sense of ownership because you have it in your memories. Beyond that you cannot usually buy a place everywhere you see. That rang a chord with me, as I sort of owned my place in Istanbul, but ultimately I could not take it with me.

Purdy also writes about some of the other writers and poets he knew, some names I recall from that time– Irving Layton (a shocking ‘red’), Milton Acorn. He tells of their parties and their support (or not) of each other, their critiques and their flaws.

I know that the land has not changed that much from when he was covering this country from sea to sea to sea. He went to places that are so remote that they are probably much the same. It gives some insight into why Canadians are the way they are, because they are affected by the land they grow up in– the Canadian Shield, the prairies, the rugged coasts, the Arctic. It makes me want to see more of this country and it certainly makes me appreciate this land more after not being in it for several decades.

Because Purdy was a poet, this was written lyrically in down to earth (or sea) manner. I recommend it for Canadians but also for those who want to see the old days and the older days, still within memory on ancient land.


Travels in Tartary    Peter Fleming

This is actually two books in one, One’s Company, originally published in 1934, and News from Tartary, first published in 1936. This volume was published in 1948, which shows the continued popularity of these books.

I can understand why. This man travelled in many places that now exist only in imagination and he travelled like the people who lived in those places, by camel, horse, donkey, and even yak. He ate what they ate, for the most part (for example, tsamba, a kind of all purpose carb; rancid butter; sour milk) and drank what often sounded like incredibly nasty water. He dealt with bureaucrats, aristocracy, and servants in patched together Chinese, Russian, and Turki.

He wrote it all in a very matter-of-fact way, drily humourous at times. For example, on one stop he wrote about the guns carried by even the servants who were bringing them dinner (this was at a stop), but ended the chapter with “No one was assassinated.”

In the second book, he had a fellow traveller, Kini, a Swiss woman. They were obviously friends and he spoke of her with admiration and respect. He wrote about how they divided up jobs and about some of the silly conversations they would have to pass the time.

He complained some, but again, it was just part of the trip. At that time there were no roads and sometimes barely trails. Often the animals were weak and in fact occasionally they had to leave one on the side of the trail. The heat, the bugs, the river fordings, the walking, trodding, climbing. But through it all he both described the country and the people. What I appreciated most was that he was not condescending, as many people tended to be at that time.

He also commented on politics. This was the time when Communists were moving in China– Mao Tse Tung received only a passing comment, since I am sure Fleming had no idea this man would ever become leader of China. He was in Manchuria when the Japanese were there. He travelled in many areas of China that were under not so secret “guidance” of the newly Communist Soviets. And as he travelled with the Turkis, there were place names and people names that were in Turkish, since that is where the Turks came from.

Those areas and events have had their influence on today’s history. The travelling was incredibly basic but what an adventure! I really enjoyed this book and appreciate that Fleming could write in such a factual and occasionally self-deprecating way. When I googled, I found that Fleming had written quite a few books and that he was also the older brother of Ian Fleming of James Bond.  Such an interesting family!

passing bravePassing Brave     William R. Polk, William J. Mares

Almost fifty years later, this record of a camel journey across part of Saudi Arabia was published. I was actually a little disappointed in it, because it didn’t seem as wild. These two men wanted to experience the life of the Bedawi before it went away.

Although they were officially given the OK, it was actually rather difficult to convince the various bureaucrats that yes, they really did want to travel by camel across the desert, which was incredible to these Arabs who were embracing the modern world in all its glory and eschewing the past.

Polk had studied Arabic literature and was taken with the poetry, but it was not a big part of the tale. He did come to realize how much the fine details of the poems reflected the way of travel, with attention to the sparse landscape and the animals and the interactions of the people.  Mares was the photographer, so there were some black and white photos of the very interesting looking men and the seemingly drab desert landscape.

The writing was not clever or scintillating, but it was an interesting read.


And finally, a book by a woman, who also wrote sympathetically about the people and places in Libya. children of allah

Children of Allah Between the Sea and Sahara       Agnes Newton Keith

This was one of the books I was going to use to make a bookcase. I decided to read it first, as in any case the bookcase was not going to happen. Published in 1965, it consists of “sketches” of her life in Libya in the 1950s. She was there because her husband had been hired to work in forestry there.

Such an interesting time to be in Libya! Since it had not been long since WWII, there was still an Italian presence, if only from locals who had learned Italian. And since Libya is an ancient land, there were many Roman and other ruins to explore.

Mrs. Keith had a sympathetic view of the people and since she was a woman, she was able  to spend time with the women– who at that time were very unlikely to be able to leave thire homes, being sequestered as good Muslim women.

Although the writer did not delve deeply into politics, she made the occasional comment about the effect of Nasser’s Egyptians on their neighbouring country, and she certainly wrote about the struggle for women to leave their veils and move into society. She also wrote about King Idris and the tribalism he both represented and controlled.

Through her husband’s work, she travelled with him and a few others over the desert and onto the sea. She admitted some of the difficulties of travelling (bumpy rides, dust, lack of water and cleanliness), but she also wrote charming but not condescending descriptions of the people she met– Bedawi, Fezzani, “true” Libyans.

Libya is more in the news these past years, with the end of Khadafi and now the rise of IS. This gives a little background to why this is a troubled state but it also shows with some sympathy the character of the peoples there. An easy read, with drawings by the author.



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