Travelling again, and a really interesting list of books, all recommended by my good friend Paddington Bear. Paddington and I have been friends for a long time – we share a passion for marmalade – but I have rather lost touch over recent years, and it was a surprise, as well as a joy, to see him the other hunched over one of the comfortable and secluded readers’ desks in the London Library. He is as charming and amiable as ever, although a little more distrait and a little quieter (after all, he must be 60 now), and readily left his studies – he is working on a monograph on the spread of the Seville orange through Moorish Spain and eventually into the hands of the British traders and cooks - and with a little help from the catalogue and Helen in Readers’ Services, came up with this little collection of books about Peru:
Matthew Parris, Inca-Kola: This was a very engaging, slightly wandering account of travelling in Peru about twenty years ago, by the ex-MP and Times columnist. He is travelling with three friends, and you learn a lot about them and their foibles and adventures, and very little about Parris’ own, except at the end, where he goes on a long and hair-raising lorry journey by himself. There is plenty of amusement, and delightful descriptions of the act of travelling and the incidental events of the road – the great sites, including Titicaca and Macchu Picchu are hardly described at all, certainly not in any “guide book” way – which is abslutely fine.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Three Letters from the Andes: I am enjoying this slight volume by the great travel writer; the letters are pretty informal, but very easy to read and very immediate. There is a wonderful reading list from the mountaineering group , each of them having brought a book or two. There’s no pap at all, as between them they have Balzac’s Illusions Perdues, Henry James' The Bostonians and Spoils of Poynton, Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow and Antic Hay, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Kim and Prescott’s Conquest of Peru! There is also one of the most straight-faced but bizarre footnotes – after the word “Andrew” in the description of the companions meeting at the airport, a footnote offers the explanation “Duke of Devonshire MC”! The accounts of the landscape, the people, and the struggles with hotels, are all most entertaining – especially of the hotel where the service at meals, and the provision of hot water, was utterly dismal: the food was inedible and the hot water non-existent; after a breakfast at which the eggs were “slimy”, there followed one in which they were like bullets, prompting one of the party to hurl it the length of the room at a mirror, where it exploded, scattering white and yolk shrapnel everywhere. The management’s response was immediate and charming, and both food and hot water were thereafter beyond reproach! But Leigh Fermor is also very good on the architecture and the sense of decay on abandoned Catholic churches, over-ornate and over-large, in remote areas, and other aperçus into a politically and socially very turbulent and tense modern Peru, while revolution was afoot in neighbouring Bolivia.
Christopher Isherwood, The Condor and the Cows: this is a travel book from around 1950, starting the United States (where Isherwood and Auden had spent the war, I think), and travelling through Venezuala, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and eventually Bolivia and Argentina. It's a very personal view, and a very entertaining one, with much more about politics and the state of the nation, though in a very anecdotal way. He gently mocks American tourists, worried about money, security, and hygiene, and meets lots of interesting people - British and American expatriates, and Peruvian artists and writers; he doesn't seem very conscious that this is a rather privileged way of travelling, and that we could mock him for his distance from the real Peru just as much as he mocks others! But he has a lovely touch - describing the difficulties of conversation in a language one has imperfectly mastered, he said it proceeded by statement alone, and gives an example:
"Peru is a very sad country". "The best American poet is English and the best English poet is American". "I once made love in the Vatican Library".
That final sentence passes you by, and then hits you like a sledgehammer. What!? How? There is not a word of explanation.
... more Peruvian reading later.