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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 9 March 2020

"Tracking Marco Polo" by Tim Severin

Severin is an explorer and travel writer; other works of his include The Sindbad Voyage and The Brendan Voyage. In this trip he used motorbikes to follow the route of Marco Polo, comparing what he discovered with the account in Polo's famous book. His companions were Michael de Larrabeiti, a cameraman who later became a novelist, and Stanley Johnson who later became the father of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson, initially described as "a burly young man with an unruly shock of blond hair" (C 1), becomes a sort of expedition bludgeon who drives his motorbike (which he repeatedly crashes) where it is determined not to go.

Despite still being an undergraduate at the time, Severin showed that many of the features of Polo's narrative could be matched with things still to be seen. For example, he found a family of Armenian descent in a Turkish village still weaving a fine silk cloth that he interpreted as 'buckram', described by Polo. He also ate a nectarine which he believed to be what Polo had called one of the 'apples of paradise' and locates the Village of the Magi, complete with an ancient Zoroastrian fire-temple. There is one moment (in chapter 7), though, where he discovers a water culvert which plunges into a subterranean tunnel and he compares it with Marco Polo's description, seemingly unaware that this might be the reference that Coleridge turned into "Alph the sacred river" which "ran through caverns measureless to man."

The history and travelled are enlivened by the description of three young daredevils on two motorbikes, originally with sidecars, which they couldn't properly ride (they didn't even have licenses for the English section of the journey). By the most brazen good fortune, the expedition repeatedly overcomes catastrophe. This would make a great road trip movie!

There are also a number of passages of extraordinarily brilliant description:

  • "The mineraliferous mountains glowed in their reds, purples, greys and browns, where the naked rock lay exposed to the long winter snows and the fierce summer sun. The road itself was little more than a rough stony path along which we twisted and turned the labouring motorcycles, leaving plumes of dust along the steep climbs and round the sharp shoulders of the rocky flanks. From time to time we skidded down into valleys and the track plunged sharply into a rushing stream. Then with the engines roaring wildly, we were forced to slither crazily into the ford, hoping that our momentum would surge the machines across before water was drawn into the bubbling exhaust pipes or we came to grief on a hidden boulder." (C 4)
  • "The fabled lakes of Band-i-Amir ... amongst the highest in the world. In the clear air of the Hindu Kush, they lie like a broken ribbon of glowing tortoiseshell, caught between the peaks. The walls of the surrounding cliffs contract and expand, giving strange and beautiful shapes to the cold, clear waters which lie in basins, slivers and goblets of crystal. At one end of the chain, a gentle trickle flows in to feed the series. At the lower end, the same trickle re-appears, lapping gently out over a natural dam of rock. When this outflow spills away over the downstream face of the dam, the mineral deposits from the sheet of water have covered the rock wall with a glowing patina of mingling tints, reds, blacks and yellows. In the heady air of the high plateau with the snow-sheathed peaks gleaming at a romantic distance, the limpid purity of the lakes of Band-i-Amir with their sheen of many colours successfully isolate an unsullied shrine of beauty." (C 10)

Other great moments:

  • "The driver was in such a state of intoxication that he kept on getting his arms entwined in the spokes of the steering wheel" (C 3)
  • "The lives of ordinary people have always been ruled by the common factors of climate and terrain." (C 11)

March 2020; 164 pages

Other great travel books in this blog:
This is one of a number of travel books reviewed in this blog, of which my favourites include:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

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