I’d never previously heard of this book, first published in 1990, though I’m a longstanding fan of Matthew Parris as a broadcaster and columnist for The Times newspaper. I especially enjoy his long-running Great Lives series on BBC Radio 4, in which he is always a charming, urbane, and kindly commentator but never afraid to say what he thinks.
I was therefore more than happy when this book was designated at BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Book Club book of the month for August. I was glad to have the excuse to spend a few hours, via the pages of this book, in the company of this genial and sensitive commentator. and I’m looking forward to joining fellow guest Caroline Sanderson and show host Dominic Cotter to discuss the book on Monday 22nd August at 1pm.
A Proper Traveller
I must admit it came as a surprise to me that Matthew Parris had travelled so much, especially in South America, and to places that aren’t typical holiday resorts for tourists. But then I was reminded that we was raised in Africa prior to his Cambridge education, followed by a spell in the Diplomatic Service before serving as an MP for seven years under Margaret Thatcher. This robust background makes him a more resilient, ever-game traveller than one might expect from his gentle and gentlemanly public persona.
A Latter Day Jerome K Jerome?
While the early chapters, describing his travels with three male companions, occasionally smacked of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel, affectionately detailing their foibles as they tackle the challenges of their journey together, a steelier character than JKJ’s lurks beneath. Under attack by bandits in Llamac, his instinctive response is:
“For myself, I asked (as one always does): “What would Mrs Thatcher do?” The answer was clear. “Let’s go for them with our pen knives,” I said to Francis.”
While he often makes the reader smile, it is clear throughout that his arduous journey by various overcrowded buses and trains of dubious mechanical quality on treacherous tracks is genuinely perilous. At one point, his bus driver leads Parris and his fellow passengers in the construction of a replacement bridge which they then cross. But Parris thrives on the rawness of the experience, preferring to sit precariously atop a speeding Land Rover with the wind in his hair than more safely inside.
He recounts the changing landscape as he winds his way through Peru (his fourth visit to the country of which he is extremely fond) with details and clear descriptions, including the relationship of man to nature – man of all origins, from native Indians to Incas to Spanish conquistadors to modern tourists. I especially enjoyed his musings on the engineering feats of the Incas, who built wondrous structures without ever inventing the wheel, and on the spiders whose complex webs echo the structure of the iron suspension bridge which they adorn. I also love the moments in which he steps back to muse whimsically beyond his immediate canvas, wondering what inventions we may have missed. What will prove to be twentieth-century man’s equivalent of the Incas absent wheel?
An Eye for Character
Like any good travel writer, he pays great attention to the many characters he meets along the way, describing not only the noisy attention seekers but also the quiet ones that might pass invisible to the less sensitive observer.
He is also constantly aware of the enormity and diversity of the world as he passes through it, though also stopping to acknowledge that while we are really all like so many and anonymous ants, we are not as separate as one might think. When asked in Tambo by an expat whether he knows the expat’s former next-door neighbour in London – an apparently absurd question when there are 6 million people in the English capital – he discovers not only does he know him, but so does his current travelling companion, Michelle. Gratifyingly, so did I! The man in question was the diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, once a guest speaker at a public lecture series that I used to organise a few years ago.
Connection with the Poor
Yet it is in his connection with the unsung, anonymous poor that provide the most moving moments in this captivating travelogue, such as the impoverished young mother of the improbably named baby Caesar Augustus; young runaway Luceo, a would-be gold prospector though barely a teenager; the sincere peasant woman who asks him to take her photograph for posterity, although she will never see it. (His camera uses film that requires developing later, which date this book.) His compassion and common touch may surprise those who are not supporters of the Conservative party to which Parris belonged as an MP.
Travelling by Proxy
Although the depth of his experience and sense of adventure was clearly rewarding to Paris, I would never dare undertake such a hazardous journey myself. I take my (notionally Peruvian bowler) hat off to his sense of adventure, and was glad to have the chance to experience the country by proxy via this intrepid traveller’s account. Towards the end he says sadly:
“The worst of our journey, and the best too, and they were the same, were over.”
In summary, this is an engaging and balanced account of a country that most of us will never visit, in the company of an ever-charming yet unsentimental narrator, who is never afraid to be a traveller rather than a tourist. Highly recommended, and if he has written any other travelogues – and I hope he has – I will certainly read them.
If you’d like to know more about Matthew Parris, here’s his profile at The Times.
If you’re interested in other travel-related books I’ve reviewed, try:
- The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
- The Faraway Lands Series by M L Eaton
- The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw