Rare travel tales

Rare travel tales
Tennyson’s words introducing this book — “Yet all experience is an arch where through Gleams that untravelled world…” very aptly describes the content of this book. Like the eponymous hero Ulysses, Miles Morland, the hero, traverses places little known about, and wherever he goes he is dogged by a tendency to get into trouble, or at least goes through a thorny path of accidents and near-misses. And thereby garners a lot of stories to tell.

His birth in Vizag in India in itself borders on the sensational for both his father (who went to fetch the doctor) and the doctor who arrives at the scene in a state of “pie eyed” drunkenness, the doctor being just in time to catch the newborn. A few years later, his mother and father decide to end their marriage and go back to grey, rainy England. But soon, his mother, described as “the most dangerous woman in India” due to her glamour and her free thinking ways, goes back to India, deciding to marry a man with only one leg and is able to drive a car at high speed because he was able to engage three pedals with just that one leg — a remarkable feat... And thereafter march across the pages of this book, a panoply of wonderful and weird characters.

In Teheran, Miles describes an incident with the kanat, the system of irrigation canals. Their dog Brutus falls into the kanat and they have to get a man familiar with the system to go down and save him. However, in a series of moves which would seem hilarious but for the outcome of the event, the man falls on the dog and the poor animal dies.

His mother had obviously come by her reputation as being “dangerous” by a series of misadventures in which she played no mean part. These include a confrontation with a man beating his donkey whereupon she snatches his stick and beats him before breaking the stick in half across her knee, and a visit to a mosque in Meshed in Iran, hoping to escape detection of her red hair and blue eyes by getting into a chador and scrunching up the chador around her face so that the blue blue eyes would be shadowed.

Miles changed his home to Baghdad following his mother’s next husband, Tom Walters, with whom his mother and her then husband peegeed (stayed as a paying guest). The boys, Miles and his brother Michael, did not seem too surprised as they had predicted it — it all seems rather bohemian and casual.

After these days of Kiplingesque adventures, it must have been galling for the boys to be admitted to boarding schools in England where the author drily remarks that “they felt it their duty to inculcate” the self-confidence from knowing you were part of a superior race and that belonging to that race made you a 24-year-old Englishman, superior to every darkie in the dominion, be he mahout or maharajah.” And then the telling conclusion: “the Spartans had had a similar system 2,500 years earlier.”

He describes the school with its system of “binning”, where a boy would be pushed into a filthy bin head first and bum sticking out and sour milk poured over him, and then the bin would be kicked downstairs, resulting often in injuries. Apart from bullying, beatings and buggery were the two other things that distinguished Victorian public schools. After reading at Oxford, Miles moved to America and took up employment on Wall Street and acquired a wife and two children. In typical Morland fashion, even his divorce did not proceed in the usual manner. Instead, he remarried his wife, lost his job and decided to go on a walk with his new (old) wife and made history writing a bestseller about that walk — across Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

His choice of his next job reflected his interest and his risk-taking penchant. Travelling in Africa, eastern Europe and the Middle East, he witnesses the first anti-communist demonstration in Czechoslovakia since the Prague Spring of 1968, is deported from Romania at gunpoint; was saved from being assassinated in Ethiopia, followed Che across the Andes, and drove an Enfield through our own Snooty Ooty. The blurb of the book says that Morland has a knack for finding trouble. While that may be true and he is lucky that his experiences form the base for this book, he also has the knack for telling stories. A consummate storyteller, he highlights the dangers which keeps the readers on edge, with a sense of humour which enchants and downplays his nose for adventure and drama.

However, It is a narrator’s voice, calm and reasonable. Although the reader feels the nostalgia, the text keeps him at a distance. Still an easy read and a good prospect during a rainy day.

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