But what makes this book special is his wonderful gift with words. Here he describes the way Germnaic painters treat martyrdom:
Meaty, unshaven louts with breastplates crooked, hanging shirt-tails and codpieces half-undone have just reeled out of the Hofbrauhaus, as it were, reeking of beer and sauerkraut and bent on beating someone insensible. A victim is found and they fall on him. Leering and winking with bared teeth and lolling tongues, they are soon sweating with exertion. The ostlers, butchers, barrel-makers, and apprentices, and Landsknechts in moulting frippery are expert limb-twisters, lamers, stoners, floggers, unsocketers and beheaders to a man, deft with their bright tools and rejoicing at their task ... Four burly tormentors with their crossed staves bending under their weight, force an enormous crown of thorns on their victim's head and a fifth batters it home with a three-legged stool. When another prepares him for scourging, he places a boot for purchase in the small of the victim's back and hauls on the bound wrists till his veins project. The heavy birch-rods need both hands to wield them and broken twigs and smashed scourges soon little the floor. At first the victim's body looks flea-bitten. It is spotted later on, like an ocelot's. with hundreds of embedded thorns. At last, after a score of indignities, the moribund carcase is nailed in place and hoisted aloof between two pot-bellied felons whose legs are snapped askew like bleeding sticks. The last touch of squalor is the cross itself. Ragged-ended and roughly barked lengths of fir and silver-birch have been so clumsily botched together that they bend under the weight of the victim as though about to collapse, and the special law of gravity, tearing the nail-holes wider, dislocates the fingers and expands them like a spider's legs. Wounds fester, bones break through the flesh and the grey lips, wrinkling concentrically round a tooth-set hole, gape in a cringing spasm of pain.
Is that not wonderful writing?
Travelling through Holland he discovers that he is entitled to a night's sleep in the local jail. Then he enters Germany; Hitler has just come to power. In some towns he calls at the burgomaster and receives a chitty for a meal and a night's accommodation at the local inn; at other times he stays with the local von who then writes to other vons on the route for him; sometimes he dosses down in a barn and on one occasion he had to make do with a field in a snow storm. Food is tricky. He is having four pound notes left at British consulates along the way but when the cash runs out he is left penniless; in Vienna when his money fails to turn up he is reduced to a Salvation Army doss house and going door to door to sketch prosperous Viennese fro 2 schiliings each; this enterprise proves lucrative and he is able to bankroll another dosser's saccharine smuggling operations.
Later he takes a detour by train to Prague and his description of the city and the castle perched on its citadel reminded me so much of my holiday there. But he was also very good on how Bohemian history fitted with English history (and how Shakespeare got it so wrong in A Winter's Tale when he assigned a coastline to Bohemia). At then end of this volume he ends in Hungary.
A magical and entertaining travel book written by one of the most lyrical writers I have ever encountered.
February 2016; 284 pages
Brilliantly continued in Between the Woods and the Water
Other great travel books in this blog:
- The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: Samarkand etc
- By milk float: Three men in a float by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince
- Walking on the coast (all of it): The Sea on our left by Shally Hunt
- By bike from Lands End to John O'Groats via a lot of pubs: Mud. Sweat and Gears by Ellie Bennett
- Watling Street by John Higgs