THE O8FORD BOOK OF
Edited by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Oxford University Press. XX pp. $21.95
THE IMPROBABLE VOYAGE
By Tristan Jones
Hearst Marine Books. 332 pp. $18.95
English Travelers to the
World of the Desert Arabs
By James C. Simmons
Morrow. 399 pp. 19.95
IF THE ONSET of summer makes you long for some faraway place, The Oxford Book of Travel Verse will fan the flames of your desire. This is the world in 400 pages, captured by British writers traveling in pursuit of pleasure and contemplation, for the sake of war and enterprise. Kevin Crossley-Holland, himself a poet, has reached back to the 7th century and up to the present day for a tour that is fun to read, offering a verse for every mood. For a passionate defense of liberty, dip into Byron's stirring excerpts from "Don Juan." For philosophy, try Matthew Arnold's "Scenes from Carnac." Humorous cynicism? Look to Dylan Thomas on the weather in Italy.
What makes this book successful is the fact that poetry naturally relies on the most valuable aspects of all travel writing: the intensely personal viewpoint; the broad vision distilled in a tiny detail; the attempt to identify with, yet distance oneself from the subject. Thomas Hardy's poem "In the Old Theatre, Fiesole" encapsulates these characteristics in a few lines. In the Roman ruins near Florence, the poet encounters a "child who showed an ancient coin/That bore the image of a Constantine . . . /How, better than all books, she had raised for me/ In swift perspective Europe's history . . . / her act flashed home/ In that mute moment to my opened mind/ The power, the pride, the reach of perished Rome."
Crossley-Holland has laced the volume with the kinds of travel observations too often ignored: negative criticism and humor. For those who complain about travel puffery, let them read Miss Brittle's 18th-century account of her uncomfortable voyage to India. She concludes, "had you, dear mother, e'er been in a ship/ You ne'er would have sent me on such a vile trip . . ." There's also Charles Stuart Calverley's droll remarks on getting from Dover to Munich: "And onward thro' those dreary flats/ We move . . . / By many a tidy little town,/ Where tidy little Fraus sit knitting;/ The men's pursuits are, lying down,/ Smoking perennial pipes, and spitting."
Along with unfamiliar poems, the editor includes such classics as the one that usually comes first to mind: John Masefield's "Sea-Fever."
If ever there was someone who had to go down to the sea again, it would be Tristan Jones, author of The Improbable Voyage. Reading this book without being familiar with any of his previous seafaring sagas is like coming in on the middle of an adventure serial. In this installment, Jones -- a cantankerous one-legged Welshman and a world sailing pioneer -- takes his ocean-going trimaran 2,307 miles down "the east coast of Europe." That is, he sails down the Rhine and Main Rivers, heading for the Danube via an as-yet-unfinished canal. Stopped temporarily by the infuriatingly inflexible German bureaucracy and the frigid winter of 1985-86, Jones trucks his boat to the Danube, then aims once again for the Black Sea. The voyage takes him through the Balkans, whose Iron Curtain bleakness he challenges with savvy seamanship and loud recordings of bagpipe music.
Now why would anyone want to do such a thing? Jones strains credulity a bit with his impassioned claim that he wants to drift with a "dream of freedom and true values through the heart of darkness" as well as prove to amputees around the world what "we can do!" Most of the time Jones comes across as an adventurer always on the lookout for an adventure.
In any case, this sailor-storyteller can spin an exciting yarn of breathtaking navigation, near-collisions, encounters with menacing border guards and outsmarted customs clerks. Too bad he plays on the reader's sympathies with tales of how he had to pound out his journalism to keep his trimaran afloat. That gets tiresome after a while. And there's no great virtue, either, in writing up the journey in 28 days flat, as Jones boasts, especially when large sections of his log are left undigested in the middle.
Jones's passion carries the day, however; his charismatic egocentrism fuels both book and boat. Though there's little description of countryside here, nor much narrative of foreign sights or sounds, national character does emerge as help or hindrance to the mission of getting the trimaran off the river and down to the sea again. There, no doubt, another voyage -- and adventurous installment -- awaits.
JONES MAY BE only the most recent example of a long line of seafaring eccentrics. A short anecdote in Passionate Pilgrims, by James C. Simmons, concerns one John MacGregor, "an intrepid Scotsman and the pioneer of British canoeing," who arrived in the mountains above Damascus in December 1868 "to explore the lakes and rivers of Syria and Palestine." MacGregor's story is an amusing digression in what should have been a riveting rogue's gallery of travelers to the Middle East. The characters are memorable enough: Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of 18th-century statesman William Pitt, spent nearly 30 years living like a queen in Arabia. Wilfred Scawen Blunt -- poet, horsebreeder, and womanizer -- became a passionate advocate of Arab nationalism. Richard Burton daringly masqueraded as a Muslim and entered the forbidden city of Mecca. As prologue and epilogue (and undoubtedly to catch the book buyer's attention) there is T.E. Lawrence, whose life is drawn in overly familiar cinematic images.
Unfortunately all these experiences are recounted in a stiff and inappropriate tone of wide-eyed wonder. Simmons relies for interpretation on other biographers or historians. In fact, the author's point of view is sadly lacking throughout, and neither his confusing introductory chapter on Napoleon in Egypt nor any of several brief historical interludes ever quite come into focus. Is Simmons interested in the British travelers? The noble Bedouins? The politics and culture of Arabia?
It's more pleasant -- and enlightening -- to turn to Blunt's own "Oasis of Sidi Khaled" in The Oxford Book of Travel Verse. Or better yet, to heed the advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in "Delinquent Travellers": "If you but perch, where Dover tallies,/ So strangely with the coast of Calais,/ With a good glass and knowing look,/ You'll soon get matter for a book!" :: Joan Tapper is the editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine.