Thursday, 14 August 2014

East is east and west is west, and when it comes to travelogues Twain is best

Shopping as a leisure activity seems to me one of the most idiotic aspects of our deranged society. Unless it’s shopping in bookshops.
A good secondhand bookshop offers probably the greatest time-erasing pleasure to be had in any high street.
And all with the prospect of a jolly good read, and maybe something really eye-opening, to come later.
The lately under-fire Oxfam may not be perfect. Heck, of course it isn’t, it’s a large and necessarily bureaucratic organisation operating in a capitalist world.
But it does a lot of good in its crusade against poverty, whatever Tory twit Conor Burns may say. (He’s the numpty who complained that the message was “too political”, instantly casting his party as the ones who want other people to stay poor.)
And for those of us not in poverty, but with leisure to read, Oxfam provides some terrific bookshops.
Places where you can browse and pick up the very volume you didn’t know existed until you discover you need it.
E-readers that you can slip in a pocket are all very well and may signal the end of the “airport novel” sooner than you’d think.
But no electronic gizmo could replace the pleasure of holding in your hands (you need both) the Portfolio of Photographs of Famous Cities, Scenes & Paintings that I have in mine. (Or did have. I had to put it down to type this paragraph.)
Promising “a rare and elaborate collection of photographic views of the entire world of nature and art”, it contains 256 full-page images of the world as it then was.
Or nearly full-page, for each one leaves room for a generous paragraph of description in John L Stoddard’s purple prose. But they are still good-sized pictures.
And utterly absorbing – as are Stoddard’s words – in their depiction of a world now mostly vanished.
It admits to being published by The Werner Company of Chicago, but not when. Careful scrutiny of the text, and reference to known history, dates it to 1897 or ’98.
Which means, of course, that pictures of Germany, Russia, the Middle East  – everywhere, really – are presented in happy ignorance of what the 20th century was to bring.
It was a world much of which was still dominated by the British Empire, not the undeclared American one we now subsist under (or the Chinese one we appear to be entering).
In fact, it’s a slightly strange “entire world”, containing 12 pictures of London, 26 of France (including 17 of Paris), 37 of Italy, and one of China. The only actual Chinese people to be seen are a man and boy in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The selection is just one of the ways in which Stoddard reveals the attitudes of his time, class and nation.
Take this well-meaning but toe-curling description of the native Australians (pictured below):
“These Aborigines are a wretched race. Like most savages, they are fond of liquor, and were it not for strict laws prohibiting the sale to them of intoxicating drinks, they would doubtless soon become exterminated through their own excesses.
“Like the North American Indians, they are disappearing rapidly before a new and sturdier race.”
He doesn’t mention the sturdier people’s sturdier weaponry, or the sturdiness of their acquisitive aggression.
Just at the time Stoddard’s dismal early epitaph for a people was being written, another American traveller was on the Australian leg of his round-the-world tour. A better writer, a keener observer, and a much sharper commentator on human nature.
Probably the finest newspaper columnist ever: Mark Twain.
In his riveting ragbag of a read, Following the Equator, Twain has much to say about the Aborigines, their inventive brilliance, their amazing physical abilities and powers of observation –  and their treatment by the white settlers.
Of the last, he concludes: “It is robbery, humiliation, and slow, slow murder, through poverty and the white man’s whisky.”
He remarks acutely and poignantly, too, on one way in which he considers the Aborigines superior to the invading Europeans. “The tribes,” he says, “had no comprehension of the idea of transferable ownership of land.”
Which, of course – as with the native Americans – made it all that much easier for the settlers to take possession and evict the former dwellers.
It’s not exactly the most rib-tickling section of a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny. But Twain does end the chapter on a characteristic wry note.
“There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
Some things have changed since Twain and Stoddard’s day. Sadly, that isn’t one of them.

Traffic on London Bridge, with a London skyline very different from today’s
Pics from John L Stoddard’s Portfolio of Photographs of Famous Cities, Scenes & Paintings

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